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May 07, 2015
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editorial

Clearing the air, part I A little environmental history


Let me tell you a story, Son.

In the olden days (not so long ago), a Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That was back in the 1970s.

In the olden days (not so long ago), the public outcry against the damaging impacts of the toxic pesticide DDT on the environment—it was especially harmful to birds and other wildlife—was so loud that the EPA banned DDT for agricultural use. That was long ago, back in the 1970s. Today, scientists point to that ban as a key factor in the comeback of the bald eagle, which almost disappeared in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. (Back in the olden days (not so long ago), science routinely trumped politics. Just imagine that, Son!)

In the olden days (not so long ago), our country had the will to do something about the persistent problem of acid rain, which was killing our forests and poisoning lakes and streams, especially in the Northeast due to air-borne pollutants from coal-burning power plants both here and in the Mid-West. (Acid rain results chiefly from sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution, which when mixed with rain create sulfuric and nitric acids that fall from the sky on our land and open water. The effects of acidification last a long time.) According to the Adirondack Lakes Survey (fieldwork begun in 1984, completed in 1987 and the report issued in 1990), “between 20% and 40% of Adirondack lakes [were] acidified, with between 10% and 25% of them highly acidified” (www.adirondackexplorer.org/book_reviews/acid-rain-in-the-adirondacks-an-...), many unable to sustain fish and plant life any more.

In 1990, Congress updated the Clean Air Act adding amendments to control power plant emissions of SO2 and NOx. Since 2000, these pollutants, especially SO2, have been reduced by more than 10 million tons. (The program has been less successful in reducing NOx.) In 2005, a Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) was promulgated to reduce SO2 emissions in 28 eastern states… by over 70% from 2003 levels (www.epa.gov/region1/eco/acidrain/history.html).

Well, Son, times surely have changed. Dismantling or rolling back environmental protections seems to be the order of the day, as powerful corporations and their lobbyists influence legislators and those who both propose and enforce environmental rules. This week, the Obama administration released its proposals for reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases to address climate change. It will be interesting, Son, to see what happens, but it’s certain there will be a fight. In fact, the battle had already commenced last week prior to the president’s announcement, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launching the first major salvo.

And so today, Son, here are some serious questions worth consideration:

Do we as a nation have the will, as we did in the olden days (not so long ago), to tackle what is likely the biggest long-term global problem ever to face mankind?

Will science finally triumph over politics, as it regularly did in the olden days (not so long ago)?

Will there be enough public outcry, demanding that Washington finally take long overdue action to cut CO2 and other greenhouse gases, against climate deniers with deep pockets who seek only to pursue their own fossil-fueled agenda?

Will enough people remember our proud environmental history to believe that public influence really can help shape policy and sway rule makers to protect clean air, clean water, and the environment at large, and then will enough people take action?

If only citizens will speak up, Son, and reclaim the people power of the olden days (not so long ago); then we might be able to tell our children and their children the story of how we acted just in time to achieve the quality of life we wanted and preserved the environment for them and everyone all around the world to enjoy in their old age.


Clearing the air, part II

And now to the story of proposed environmental rollbacks in Pennsylvania.

The trend to weaken environmental proposals is alive and well in the Keystone state. Consider the Commonwealth’s proposed plan for dealing with its chronic smog problem. (Smog is the result of sunlight reacting with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and especially with NOx to create airborne particles and ground-level ozone—not to be confused with ozone in the atmosphere that protects the earth from the sun’s ultra-violet rays.) In 2013, PA counties experienced a combined 485 dangerous ozone days, up from about 300 in 2012. Despite this, the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is currently proposing a plan to allow power companies to negotiate new compliance terms when they cannot meet their air quality standards set by EPA. (Such pollution limitations were first established by EPA in 1971.)

Because PA hasn’t met federal air quality standards (currently more than eight million residents live in areas that have not attained health-based smog standards), DEP/EQB has been required to write a plan for how its hundreds of power plants will meet NOx and VOC emissions standards, especially the commonwealth’s 31 coal-fired power plants. Under the plan, each power plant must have installed Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) for reducing emissions and have a plan for how it will meet its target RACT limitations. (Critics say that RACT is not sufficient, and that PA should require Selective Catalytic Reduction technology instead, which is readily available.)

Unfortunately, the state’s implementation plan seems devised to let the utilities off the hook in meeting their required goals. Here’s how: the plan would allow utility companies to petition for an alternative compliance schedule, allow them to negotiate to modify their permits by averaging their pollution emissions over their entire fleet of power plants (instead of achieving compliance for each individual plant), and to use a 30-day rolling average to achieve emissions goals rather than the former standard that had to be met in one-hour or eight-hour increments.

Last week, public hearings were held in Pittsburg, Norristown and Harrisburg. On Friday, the Pittsburgh City Council weighed in, pointing out that PA has eight million residents, about two thirds of its total population who live in areas that have not reached federal smog standards, and criticizing the plan’s retreat from stricter standards. “Smog [can] lead to or exacerbate health concerns including asthma, heart attacks, stroke and premature death,” the council resolution said, and “the proposals by DEP are up to four times less stringent than those proposed by other similarly situated mid-Atlantic states,” including New York.

We join the Pittsburgh City Council and the list of environmental groups opposing the state’s plan to weaken existing rules and negotiate weaker emissions targets and extend schedules to attain those targets, which power companies have had decades to achieve.

We invite Pennsylvania citizens to submit their public comments before the deadline of June 30 by going online at www.ahs.dep.pa.gov/RegComments or by mailing written comments to Environmental Quality Board, P.O. Box 8477, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8477.