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Sooty skies: all ‘downwinders’ beware


Love it or hate it, this region has its share of hazy, if not lazy days. Credit the "lake effect" in part. But there's also an atmospheric effect that could be termed "coal comfort." The Great Lakes region has long been dependent on large coal-fired electric-generating plants. And despite the availability of cleaner technologies, some more-or-less local power plants still belch out soot in impressive quantities.

            Rochester has its own piece of the action on the Lake Ontario shore in Greece: "Rochester 7," aka Rochester Gas and Electric's Russell Station. Known casually as a good fishing spot because of its warm-water effluent, the plant may be shut down in a few years. In any case, it recently earned a dishonorable mention in an environmental report. The report is Lethal Legacy: A Comprehensive Look at America's Dirtiest Power Plants, prepared by the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and released here October 28 by the group's state affiliate, NYPIRG.

            Lethal Legacy calls the Russell Station "the 12th least efficient plant nationwide in terms of SO2 [sulfur dioxide] rate." The report determines efficiency by comparing a plant's emissions of pollutants to its heat input, the latter measured in BTUs. Using federal Environmental Protection Agency data, the report says that in 2002 Russell Station emitted 26,395 tons of this key pollutant. The plant also released 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. (RG&E spokesperson Dick Marion did not return a call for comment.)

There's more to Lethal Legacy, though, than mere presentation of data and general concern for the environment. For example, simply by tabulating carbon dioxide emissions, the report touches on key questions before Congress and the courts. For example: Is CO2 actually a pollutant, or is it just a natural component of the atmosphere? Or are rising levels of atmospheric CO2 the principal cause for worry about the environmental future --- and a compelling reason to shut the coal plants down?

            But most immediately important, the report tracks where the Bush administration and the president's ever-changing EPA are leading the nation and the world.

NYPIRG's Western New York coordinator, Michael Davoli, is clearly worried about the road ahead --- and the present.

            At a recent Rochester news conference, he spoke about the coal-fired power plants that most affect this part of North America. And though he mentioned the Russell Station, he didn't dwell on it.

            That's because there are bigger regional fish to fry. Take the Huntley plant in Tonawanda, just north of Buffalo on the Niagara River.

            Huntley is "the 49th most inefficient power plant in the country," says Davoli. Owned by the Minneapolis-based transnational NRG Energy Inc., the plant is a big polluter by any standard. According to EPA data given in Lethal Legacy, Huntley emitted 38,998 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2002 --- almost 50 percent more than the Russell plant --- along with 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and 7,158 tons of nitrogen oxides.

            Then there's another NRG property, the Dunkirk Steam Station, on the Lake Erie shoreline southwest of Buffalo. An even bigger emitter than Huntley, Dunkirk pumped out 51,907 tons of SO2 last year, plus 3.6 million tons of CO2. (A Minneapolis-based NRG spokesperson said she'd comment after reviewing the USPIRG and NYPIRG materials; she did not follow up as promised, however.)

            The Dunkirk and Huntley plants are not the only New York plants to be concerned about. NYPIRG says there are 19 especially "dirty" plants statewide. At least one of them makes even Dunkirk look small --- Long Island's Northport plant, which emitted 5.7 million tons of CO2 last year.

            Beyond the numbers, though, what effect do emissions on this scale have?

            Briefly, they pump out substances that harm human health. Especially troubling are smog-forming, soot-forming pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Often euphemized in the technical literature as "particulates," soot does much worse than turn things drab and dirty. "Community heath studies," says an American Lung Association backgrounder, have "demonstrated that fine particle air pollution [is] associated with increased use of asthma medication in children, decline in respiratory function, increased emergency room visits and hospitalization for respiratory and cardiac problems, and premature death."

            Coal plants emit other heavy-duty poisons, too. For example, says Michael Davoli, these plants are "the largest source of toxic mercury [pollution]."

            A 1997 EPA report to Congress backs this up. Of the 158 tons of mercury emitted by "anthropogenic" sources in the US annually, says the report, fully 33 percent comes from coal-fired utility plants.

For decades, Americans have expected to see --- and smell --- steady improvements in air quality.

            But USPIRG, NYPIRG, and other groups warn of backsliding.

            In particular, they're sounding alarms about White House moves to fillet the Clean Air Act via a legislative package called "Clear Skies." One piece of this package could keep the nation's coal plants polluting at higher levels than necessary. And after some delay, the Bush administration has begun a new campaign to ram the legislation through.

            According to an EPA summary, over the next 15 years Clear Skies would cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent, nitrogen oxides emissions by 67 percent, and mercury emissions by 69 percent. But most environmental groups are not impressed. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, says the targets in Clear Skies "are weaker than those that would be put in place if the Bush administration simply implemented and enforced the existing law." (In this connection, note the EPA's sleight-of-hand: NRDC's language emphasizes progress through a phase-in of strengthened rules. But the EPA says Clear Skies would "achieve substantially greater reductions in pollution... than are attainable under current law." Emphasis added.)

            The amounts at issue aren't trivial, either. Clear Skies would allow "three times more toxic mercury emissions, 50 percent more sulfur emissions, and hundreds of thousands more tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides," says the NRDC.

            How would this happen?

            One mechanism the Bush plan favors is a rollback of New Source Review (NSR), which basically requires technological upgrades when old plants like Russell or Huntley are subjected to anything beyond routine maintenance. This mechanism has been part of the Clean Air Act since 1977. The NRDC and other groups charge that Bush's friends in the energy industry have worked to weaken NSR, and that the Clear Skies legislation would make the industry's wish-list the law of the land.

            For their part, the utilities don't seem eager to tell whether they'd use Clear Skies to keep their old plants on-line longer --- without having to add anti-pollution equipment.

These considerations could have direct effects on Western New York and the Genesee Region, and far beyond. But relevant things are brewing across the border, too.

            Ontario Power Generation's Nanticoke Thermal Power Station on the north shore of Lake Erie sends large amounts of pollution over a wide swath, with Rochester almost at the center. According to Ontario Power literature, Nanticoke, which actually has eight turbines cranking out 4,000 megawatts, is one of the world's largest coal-fired plants. The pollution output is world-class, too: "The emissions form Nanticoke are equivalent to 3.5 million cars," a Niagara Region (Ontario) health administrator told the CBC News earlier this year.

            This past May, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a complaint under NAFTA rules about pollution from Nanticoke and two other Ontario coal plants. One of the others is the Lakeview plant in Mississauga, just west of Toronto.

            Some Ontarians are going after their problem plants, of course. The Toronto-based Ontario Clean Air Alliance has put special emphasis on cleaning the plants up. The Alliance's chair, Jack Gibbons, says the group has been working with US officials and environmental organizations toward that common goal. Spitzer, says Gibbons, "has been a real champion."

            Gibbons sounds hopeful about an imminent change at home. He notes the Liberal Party under Dalton McGuinty just won "a tremendous victory" last month in provincial elections. The Liberals, Gibbons says, campaigned on a promise to phase out all the province's coal-fired plants by 2007. (The now-defeated Tories under incumbent Premier Ernie Eves had promised only to "work toward" a phase-out by 2015.)

            The Liberals further promised to boost renewable energy sources: hydropower, wind, and so forth. This is comparable to George Pataki's pledge last January: The governor said New York's proportion of electricity generated by renewables would rise to 25 percent in 10 years.

            Of course, it remains to be seen if either pledge will be implemented on schedule.

            Meanwhile, Eliot Spitzer's name appeared prominently on a multi-state lawsuit filed against the federal EPA at the end of October. The central issue is the rule-change on New Source Review.

            "The new regulation," said the attorney general's office, "states that any modification costing up to 20 percent of the replacement cost of the unit will be considered routine maintenance, and therefore exempt from pollution controls, even if [this] results in much higher levels of air pollution."

            There you have it: If Washington trumps Albany and Toronto, Rochesterians won't be breathing easier.