Leading the Way For Clean Air in the Southeast


On a warm, mid-February day of this year, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley joined dignitaries from across the state in Catawba County to witness the groundbreaking of a new “scrubber” at Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station. This sophisticated air pollution filter is one of the first new devices put in place as a result of North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act. It was a red-letter day not only for clean air but also for the economy of the southern mountains, a dramatic demonstration of how this landmark legislation is simultaneously creating jobs, protecting the environment, and improving public health in North Carolina, while also setting the bar for clean air across the Southeast.

The North Carolina Clean Smokestacks Act was passed in 2002, and is possibly the strongest clean air legislation, federal or state, ever passed in the United States. Over the next five to nine years, North Carolina’s coal-burning power plants will reduce their nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution by about 75 percent. These two chemicals account for ozone, acid rain and haze, which in turn cause thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks in North Carolina every year and obscure the beautiful scenic vistas in the mountains.

An added benefit of the sulfur and nitrogen reduction will be that highly toxic mercury from these sources will be reduced by over half. The act also requires the development of a plan to reduce carbon dioxide, the most important pollutant causing global warming. Finally, the act empowers the state to demand that upwind states such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia reduce the pollution that blows over to North Carolina on the prevailing westerly winds. Impressively, these actions will not even put a financial burden on North Carolina’s electricity consumers, as a five year freeze on electricity rates was agreed to in passing the legislation.

Reducing emissions and saving lives

Now, almost two years after the passage of Clean Smokestacks, progress is being made across the board. Duke and Progress Energy are installing pollution equipment that will reduce sulfur, nitrogen and mercury, and the carbon dioxide plan is being developed. And finally, in the last month, North Carolina’s Attorney General, Roy Cooper, has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to require thirteen upwind states to make pollution cuts similar to North Carolina’s.

The scrubbers being installed at the Marshall Steam Station will have many benefits. This $400 million project will remove 80-90 percent of the sulfur from the smokestacks, and will also remove at least 50 percent of the toxic mercury. This pollution reduction will make a difference for human health in nearby Charlotte and other areas of the state, preventing premature death and damage to the nervous systems of newborns. Completion is scheduled for 2007.

Much-needed Jobs

In addition to the pollution reductions, the Duke Energy project will produce something that tops the list of concerns for many in North Carolina — jobs. In an area suffering from the loss of furniture and textile jobs, Catawba County Commission Chair Kitty Barnes says the jobs are certainly welcome.

According to plant manager Tom Rawe, a total peak workforce of about 300-400 jobs will be created over the three year construction. In addition, some 20-25 workers will likely be added to the permanent workforce for Marshall Steam Station to operate and maintain the scrubbers.

“Marshall Steam Station now employs a total of about 135 permanent workers, so the scrubber crew will be a substantial addition to our workforce,” comments Rawe. More jobs will be created providing the construction materials as well as for the limestone consumed in the scrubbing process, which amounts to about 300 train car loads of the material every month.

Another job-producing aspect of the scrubbers will be the recycling of the main by-product of the process, the tons of gypsum waste. After being cleansed of pollutants, the spent limestone will be in the form of gypsum, which will be made into wallboard for building construction. From the Duke Energy perspective, the main advantage of the recycling is that they find a use for what could have become mountains of waste. From the perspective of North Carolina manufacturers of wallboard, they now have a ready supply of a high-quality raw material for their product.

Natural water filtering

Another even more environmentally-friendly aspect to the scrubbing process will be the disposal of the toxic water waste. Working for Duke Energy, Clemson University Forestry and Natural Resources professor Dr. John Rogers will oversee construction of an artificial wetland, through which the pollutant-laden water will be passed. The toxic heavy metals such as mercury and copper will be absorbed by the natural filtering system of the wetland, transforming them into harmless chemicals which will remain in the sediment at the bottom of the wetland, minimizing their impact on the environment.

Says Dr. Rogers, “We are creating a natural filter system that protects aquatic ecosystems, especially in coastal areas.” He adds, “These artificial wetlands have been used for decades to filter industrial pollution, but this is the first application for power plant waste of this sort.”

The Marshall Steam Station project is one of several across the state that will result from the Clean Smokestacks Act. Assuming that the other half dozen Progress Energy and Duke Energy scrubber projects have similar benefits, it is reasonable to expect the creation of several thousand jobs over the next nine or so years. Progress Energy will place scrubbers at its Roxboro, Mayo, Cape Fear, Sutton and Asheville power plants and Duke Energy will do additional scrubber installations at its Belews Creek, G. G. Allen, and Cliffside plants. The Progress Energy scrubber installation at their Asheville plant began in 2003.

Pressuring other states to meet Clean Air Act standards

Unfortunately, even with all of this work underway, North Carolina is unable to clean up its air pollution problem on its own. Particularly in the western part of the state, a significant portion of the pollution comes from upwind. Because of this, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper recently put thirteen surrounding states on notice that North Carolina intends to see that they clean up their coal-fired power plants to levels similar to which his state has committed. A section of the federal Clean Air Act provides for states to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to require other states to clean up their pollution, which blows across state boundaries and prevents North Carolina from meeting its federal clean air requirements.

Cooper sees reducing pollution from upwind states as important not just for the health and environment of North Carolinians, but for their economy as well. “Dirty air can choke our lungs and our economy,” says Cooper. “That is why we must act now to protect the health of North Carolina’s people and environment, as well as industries like farming and tourism that are critical to our state.”

Environmental and health advocates agree with the Attorney General and add that other states would not just be doing North Carolina a favor by complying, but would also be protecting their own citizens from in-state pollution, as well as benefiting from the regional aspect of the cleanup. The EPA has already stated that they recognize the threat of inter-state air pollution in preventing states from meeting federal guidelines, so clean air advocates contend that the EPA will have a hard time denying their responsibility in helping to find North Carolina a remedy. However, given the Bush Administration’s record of weakening, rather than strengthening clean air laws, many anticipate that the EPA may differ with the magnitude of North Carolina’s proposed state-by-state pollution reductions.

What North Carolina’s Governor, state legislature, public utilities, industrial trade associations, and environmental and health advocates can all agree on is that North Carolina is leading the way for clean air in the Southeast. The Clean Smokestacks Act is now a model for other states, and figures into the debate of any proposed federal legislation on clean air.


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