Paying For Clean Air… Elsewhere

American Electric Power’s Clinch River Power Plant near Bristol, TN. Photo by Kent Kessinger.

A ‘CONE OF DEATH’ – Small particle pollution is most concentrated near where it was emitted, placing those who live within a 30-mile radius at 3-4 times higher risk of death from pollution-related causes. Image courtesy of Clean Air Taskforce.
Photo by Kent Kessinger

POLLUTING MORE THAN THEIR FAIR SHARE – While the national and state average pollution rate for SO2 coming from power plants has been falling for the last decade and more, AEP’s Virginia plants have made little progress in reducing their SO2 pollution rate.

Built in 1944, American Electric Power’s coal-fired power plant in Glen Lyn, VA, is the oldest power plant in the state. Still using technologies from the mid-20th century, the Glen Lyn plant burns hundreds of train-car loads of coal every day – at a cost of more than 20 lives/year from pollution.

After coughing through a streak of bad air days late last July, the dirty Bristol air finally proved too much for Marjorie of Bristol, Virginia. Marjorie, who suffers back problems and an asthmatic sensitivity to air pollution, eventually coughed so long and hard that she ruptured a disk in her back. Now, invasive back surgery is needed to repair the damage.

Not every morning begins so dismally in Bristol, a city that straddles the Tennessee border in the far western part of Virginia, but bad air can ruin anyone’s day. On most summer mornings, Marjorie wakes up and checks the online EPA air quality report,, to see what kind of day the wind will bring. For Marjorie, and thousands of other vulnerable Virginians, how dirty the air is will determine what she can do that day. A typical day will score in the “code yellow” range on the EPA’s air quality index, but the air can get far worse than that when the atmospheric conditions conspire to allow air pollutants to accumulate.

A ‘code orange’ day is considered unsafe for “sensitive” people: children, older adults, those exercising outdoors, asthmatics and others who suffer from respiratory disease.

“There are even code red ozone days now in the summer in the Southeast,” says Marjorie, “which means even normal healthy children shouldn’t play outside. On a bad air day, I have to walk the dog early in the morning before things heat up and the air gets worse. I can’t do any outdoor work and stay inside with the air purifiers on.”
“As the summer drags on I get wheezier and wheezier, and I use my inhaler more and more. I cough more and more until I can’t sleep,” says Marjorie, who recently had to go on Prednisone to alleviate her asthma.

“It’s a terrible thing to be short of breath, and have to use steroids to breathe,” she says.

The source of the pollution that afflicts Marjorie is no mystery: coal-fired power plants are responsible for the majority of the air pollution in southwest Virginia. In the case of Bristol, a major source of that pollution is American Electric Power’s Clinch River power plant, a large coal-burning plant, built in the 1950’s, that has installed only minimal pollution control technology. The plant is located just 25 miles north of the city.

AEP’s other Virginia plant in Glen Lyn is about 30 miles west – and upwind – of the city of Blacksburg. Built in 1944, Glen Lyn is the oldest power plant in the state. Like the Clinch River plant, the only pollution control technologies installed at Glen Lyn are inexpensive precipitators to catch ash, and “Low NOx Burners” that were mandated by the EPA and the state in order to reduce ozone pollution downwind.

According to a report by the American Lung Association, more than 450,000 people live within 30 miles of one of these two power plants. An abundance of recent medical research demonstrates that that is a significant health risk. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that fine particles fall in a ‘cone of death.’ According to the study, “The risk of death to people living within 30 miles of the plants was found to be 3-4 times that of people living farther away.”

This increased risk is the result of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) emissions combining with other air-borne pollutants to form microscopic specks, called fine particles, that irritate the lungs and increase the risk of lung disease when inhaled. Small particles can also make their way from the lungs into the bloodstream, causing a greatly increased risk of heart disease and even death.

This health risk is significant in southwest Virginia: Blacksburg and Bristol are losing 15 and 26 citizens every year, respectively, based on EPA models. And while Virginia as a whole suffers a significant air quality problem – the state recently scored a grade of “F” in the American Lung Association’s 2005 “State of the Air” report – these two cities downwind of AEP plants share the dubious distinction of making the list of the nation’s top twenty cities for death rates attributable to fine particle pollution from power plants.

It’s statistics like these that make many southwest Virginia residents skeptical of AEP’s claim that it “makes every effort to protect the communities neighboring our facilities.” Based on EPA figures, the Clinch River plant kills an estimated 59 people every year from its particle pollution alone, while the more rural Glen Lyn plant kills 21.

“With neighbors like these, who needs enemies?” asks Mary Anne Hitt, Blacksburg resident and executive director of Appalachian Voices.

Residents unimpressed by AEP’s rhetoric

The technology to clean up power plant pollution has existed for decades, and now costs half or less of what it once did. Massive filters, known as a scrubbers, can virtually eliminate sulfur dioxide pollution when installed on a smokestack, promising a breath of fresh air for communities nearby.

So why haven’t scrubbers been installed on AEP’s two coal-fired power plants in Virginia? By AEP’s cost estimation method, cleaning up both plants’ SO2 pollution would cost $270 million. With the company’s status as the largest electricity generator in the US, and having enjoyed a gross profit of $7.6 billion in 2005, any claims of financial hardship are likely to ring hollow.

In fact, there’s little evidence that AEP has ever done more than the bare minimum to protect the communities who live downwind from its plants. When it has installed pollution controls, say critics like Hitt, it was spawned by legislation followed by litigation to enforce reluctant executives to comply with the law.

Of the dozens of coal-fired plants AEP operates across 11 states, it has installed scrubbers on just 6 plants. Only one of those was installed before 2001. According to Pat Hemlepp, AEP’s director of corporate media relations, the company plans to install 8 more to comply with new federal regulations. Unfortunately for Marjorie and other residents of southwest Virginia, the Clinch River and Glen Lyn plants did not make the list of plants slated for cleanup.

What is particularly galling to Virginia ratepayers, though, is AEP’s recent move to raise electricity rates in southwest Virginia to pay for its cleanup in neighboring states, a move made possible by Virginia’s recent deregulation of its utilities. The company seeks to be reimbursed around $13 million dollars for its West Virginia cleanup so far, and will be asking Virginians for millions more as cleanup continues over the next several years.

When it comes to lobbying, however, AEP has been considerably less stingy. The company spent $7,261,051 between 1998 and 2004 on lobbying efforts to influence the rules and regulators that govern it, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

“This is a classic Washington ‘follow the money’ story,” says Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Director Frank Clemente. “When the electric power industry faced strong government attempts to clean up many of its aging coal-fired power plants, an action that would cost the utilities billions, a few dozen corporations and their trade association began an intensive campaign to derail the effort.”

Clemente believes that the industry’s strategy was largely successful, as almost all regulatory changes coming out of the White House in recent years have been heavily tilted toward the interests of industry. Moreover, there has been a constant stream of bills in Congress over the same time period designed to weaken various provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Lost in the loopholes

Even if utilities recognize that they will eventually be forced to clean up or close down their dirtiest power plants, there are lucrative reasons to delay the process.
“These guys play for time,” said Eric Schaeffer, former chief of environmental regulation at the EPA who resigned in protest at White House attacks on the foundations of clean air law. “They know they are going to have to scrub these units, but the longer they put it off, the more money they make.”

According to Schaeffer, that adds up to millions of dollars per year – more than enough to justify the cost of top-notch lobbyists and lawyers.

But in March of 2005, the regulatory landscape changed dramatically for the power companies when the EPA finalized its Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). That rule, if enforced and complied with by utilities, is projected to reduce national sulfur dioxide emissions by close to 60% over the next decade. However, as with other past regulatory attempts to clean up the dirtiest plants, CAIR has loopholes.

Most worrisome to southwest Virginians, CAIR contains ‘Cap and Trade’ style regulations. While popular with legislators and industry because they allow power companies to flexibly and cost-effectively meet pollution regulations, this approach does not deal well with local pollution problems of mercury and SO2. Instead of telling each individual plant how much it has to reduce its pollution, the EPA now sets a nation-wide ceiling or “cap” on a pollutant. Then, working with states, it divvies out the rights to emit this pollution. Larger plants receive more ‘credits’ – the right to emit one ton of a pollutant – than smaller plants. If a plant cleans up and no longer needs all of its allotted credits, by ‘over-controlling,’ it can sell these extra credits to plants polluting more than their share. Another option for a company like AEP is to over-control at one of its plants and use the extra credits to keep polluting, or increase pollution its dirtier plants.

Though most agree that strategy has been successful in reducing pollution on the large scale, the implications of this type of regulation on the local scale remain controversial. AEP’s plan to comply with the new stricter air regulations makes effective use of the “cap and trade” loophole.

As a result of CAIR, AEP must spend $4.1 billion through 2010 on pollution controls, and another $1.5 billion by 2020. However, AEP’s pollution reduction strategy, made possible by “cap and trade” regulation, is to clean up a few newer, larger plants, where it can gain the most credits. Those credits will be used to keep smaller and older plants like Clinch River and Glen Lyn online, still polluting like they were the mid-twentieth century.

The result is that costs are passed along to rate-payers, either through the cost of building a scrubber or through the cost of buying pollution credits, even if those particular rate-payers, as in the case of southwest Virginia, will not benefit very much, if at all from the clean-up for which they are paying. The SO2 credits AEP will use for its excess VA pollution are worth $20 million, money not being spent on scrubbers close to home.

Electric power meets people power

The problem of poor air quality is not lost on most Virginians, nor is it lost on state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. DEQ is already looking at stricter standards on mercury that would prevent utilities from trading credits out of state. But the powerful electric industry has a lot allies in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, and industry-promoted bills have been introduced into both chambers that would, according to Clean Air Advocates such as the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, “ … remove all discretion from the scientists at DEQ to regulate mercury in a manner best fitting the Commonwealth, and would force on Virginia the weakest regulations in [the] region.”

On the brighter side for residents of southwest Virginia, a bill called the Virginia Clean Smokestacks Act was also introduced into both chambers of the Virginia Legislature in January. A similar bill died last year in a House Committee, but supporters like Donna Reynolds of the American Lung Association see a viable chance for the bill to gain a full vote in the House of Delegates this year. The committee votes are scheduled for late January and early Feruary – soon after this issue goes to press.

According to Reynolds, “Clean Smokestacks does what CAIR should have done” by preventing companies like AEP from using credits it earned out of state to keep it’s dirtiest plants from having to install better pollution controls. It would also impose a faster timetable for cleaning up pollution, but would not mandate SOx reductions beyond what is already written in the federal CAIR rule.

“Clean Smokestacks is not a radical proposal,” says Mary Anne Hitt, “it’s about building off the many years of research that went into the federal CAIR rule and closing one important loophole to make sure that the health of every Virginian is protected.”

Virginia power

In deciding how to approach its pollution reduction strategy, Virginia’s decision-makers can look to the experience of neighboring North Carolina, which passed its own Clean Smokestacks Bill in 2002. As a result of passing that act, North Carolina is creating thousands of jobs in its manufacturing and construction industries and is building two new wallboard manufacturing plants that use large amounts of gypsum, the waste product generated by scrubbers. Counties in southwest Virginia where AEP’s plants are located could certainly use a similar influx of manufacturing jobs.

But clean air advocates in Virginia are more apt to talk about the many health benefits residents of western counties would enjoy should the region’s air get cleaner – not to mention the dozens more Virginians that would still be around each year to enjoy that cleaner air.

“The VA legislature needs to step up and find solutions that will protect our families, our heritage, and our pristine environment,” says Donna Reynolds of the American Lung Association. Virginia’s clean air advocates vow to keep working until they succeed in closing the loophole “that leaves southwest Virginia behind.”

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