The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a tough new pollution restriction called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. This rule limits pollution drifting from power plants in one state to people’s lungs in states downwind. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association about the potential health benefits linked to this new standard. (Photo: Wknight94, Wikipedia Creative Commons)
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Americans can soon breathe easier - because it's making the Good Neighbor Rule tougher. And that decision is sure to make enemies out of utilities that burn coal.
The Good Neighbor Rule is shorthand for the EPA's Cross State Air Pollution Rule - which is a mouthful - designed to reduce a lungful of toxic chemicals that drift downwind from coal-fired power plants. Joining me to discuss the implications of the new rule is Janice Nolen, an Assistant Vice President of the American Lung Association. Welcome to Living on Earth!
NOLEN: Thank you!
GELLERMAN: The Cross State Air Pollution Rule - it’s been around for awhile, right?
NOLEN: One version of it was. EPA did have an earlier version of this in 2005 that got tossed out by the courts in 2008. The courts said, ‘EPA, we really have to clean up these power plants, we agree with you on this,’ and so this rule provides a better structure and a more complete approach to dealing with the pollution from coal-fired power plants that blows across state lines and contributes to pollution problems all over the eastern US.
GELLERMAN: So, how does it work?
NOLEN: The EPA figures out how much pollution in each state is coming from a state across the state line. Sometimes they’re as far away as, say, Texas is from Pennsylvania, and EPA is calculating what percentage of that pollution in Pennsylvania is coming from each of those states. And they’ve done this through some computer modeling, through some testing and investigation and have arrived at an assessment that can help people in Pennsylvania recognize that they can't deal with pollution problems coming from Texas, they have to have the help of EPA so that they can sort through their problem.
GELLERMAN: Now this does not affect all states, it’s only, what, 27 states as I understand it, in the East?
NOLEN: Right, it’s the eastern US, the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast. Parts of places where the state lines are pretty close together, where pollution can easily blow from some of these big sources throughout the country into other parts of the country. So that’s one of the reasons it’s the good neighbor rule. It’s a rule that will actually help people to be able to breathe easier downwind for the first time, really.
GELLERMAN: So specifically, what pollutants are we talking about?
NOLEN: The main ones we’re looking at are two of the most widespread in the country: ozone, which is often called smog, and particle pollution, which is frequently known as soot. Particle pollution are tiny bits of things that are actually so small that they can pass through the body’s natural defenses. Ozone is a highly irritating gas, and when you inhale it, it can make the lungs have like a sunburn effect.
GELERMAN: And these new rules by the EPA would dramatically cut those, right?
NOLEN: Absolutely. These new rules would help reduce sulfur dioxide by 73 percent from levels that existed in 2005. For nitrogen oxide, they’re cutting that by about 54 percent. So it’s a significant amount of reduction to be able to provide healthier air for all of us.
GELLERMAN: So what are the health benefits of this new rule?
NOLEN: Well, the first one is to save lives. EPA estimates that by 2014, we will have 34,000 fewer deaths each year thanks to having this rule put in place. By that same year we’ll have about 15,000 fewer heart attacks. We’ll have 400,000 fewer asthma attacks. These are real health improvements that we will be able to see. People don’t always realize that air pollution causes people to die, that it causes heart attacks, causes asthma attacks. But we have plenty of evidence that shows that and the calculations show that this will have a terrific public health benefit.
GELLERMAN: But it’s not like there’s a death certificate that says “Killed by coal power plants,” you know? How do you really know how many deaths and illnesses are caused by them?
NOLEN: You’re right, people don’t think that when they have a heart attack that it’s related, but we’re able to do this through very large studies that are done of communities across the nation that have been tracked for a long time, that we’re able to track this down and compare it to the air quality in that community, and by eliminating the consideration for those other things like smoking or something, we’re able to see that air pollution has a real measurable impact on public health.
GELLERMAN: What about in terms of economic benefits? Has that been quantified?
NOLEN: Yes. And EPA is finding that the economic benefits of this rule far outweigh the costs associated with it. EPA expects that we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 100 times more dollars of benefits for every dollar of costs associated with this rule. So it’s going to have a huge benefit.
GELLERMAN: Well, how much is it going to cost utilities to comply with the new EPA rule?
NOLEN: EPA is projecting that in 2014, the costs will be 800 million dollars and then roughly 1.6 billion each year in capital investments already under way as a result of what they’re doing now. And then it will result in 120-280 billion in annual benefits. So the costs, and even the upfront and even the substantial annual costs, are going to be far outweighed by the annual benefits that will come in.
GELLERMAN: Well, what is industry saying? They don’t like this at all?
NOLEN: It’s not like they haven’t known that these rules would be coming down the pike. The last time we changed the Clean Air Act was 1990, so for 21 years they’ve known that they need to be cleaning up their power plants. And now we’re finally putting things in place. They’re going to have to follow the rules!
GELLERMAN: So is this a done deal now?
NOLEN: It should be. EPA has produced this as a final rule, once it’s published. There are a few pieces of it that are going back and they’re going, ‘OK, well, we’ve changed this a little bit, so we’re having another opportunity for comment.’ And then starting in January, cleanup will be happening. EPA has this authority, and hopefully they will be allowed to exercise the authority, as the law requires.
GELLERMAN: Janice Nolen is the Assistant Vice President at the American Lung Association. Ms. Nolen, thank you so very much!
NOLEN: Thank you!
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