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Advocates hail soot standard as lifesaver

Mary Ann Thomas
| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 10:16 a.m.

Government agencies and environmental groups are lauding a new national air quality standard for fine particulates — better known as soot — that should decrease the number of deaths and respiratory illnesses caused by pollution in the region.

Although 10 Pennsylvania counties couldn't meet the standard today — including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland — the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection expects all to comply before the 2020 deadline.

The soot rule “is among the most critical standards that EPA could set,” because it triggers a series of measures local governments must take to comply or risk federal penalties, said Clean Air Watch President Frank O‘Donnell.

The American Lung Association has ranked Pittsburgh and its pollution high in a number of surveys, including a 2010 study that ranked Allegheny and surrounding counties as having the third worst soot pollution in the country.

Last month, the EPA tightened the limit for soot, called the national ambient air quality standards, for the annual average level of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The previous standard, set in 1997, was 15 micrograms.

Originally, environmental groups were hoping for a stricter limit of 11 micrograms per cubic meter.

“No one got everything they wanted,” said Kevin M. Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association.

“We're definitely happy with what it ended up being, but we're not fully satisfied,” he said.

Going from a standard of 15 to 12 will save thousands of lives nationally, according to Stewart.

“I hope that industries will not put up such a big fight but put in the investments to safeguard the lives of their citizens,” said Stewart.

Earlier this year, business groups and many Republicans opposed the new standards, saying that the increased regulation could prove costly without providing the hoped-for benefits.

Gov. Tom Corbett and other Republican governors pushed for delays.

But that didn't happen as 11 states joined with groups, including the American Lung Association, to challenge the delay. A federal court backed the states and ordered the new rules be imposed.

“I think all things are political compromises, and I feel that the EPA took the best shot that they could,” said Thomas Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action.

“I think our region is starting to recognize this is something that is in our economic interest,” he said. “It's not air versus economy. It's that air is our route to making a better economy.”

The EPA estimates that the economic benefits from better health from the new standards will range from $88 million a year to as much as $5.9 billion.

The estimated cost of pollution control will range from $2.9 million to $69 million, according to the EPA.

Older, dirtier, coal-fired power plants are a major source of soot in the region, according to Randy Francisco, organizing representative for the Sierra Club in Pittsburgh.

“Our job is stay on top of the coal plants,” said Francisco.

“We sit in the ring of fire in terms of coal plants sitting all around us, including Ohio and West Virginia,” he said.

“It's so important for us to make sure every plant around us is in compliance so our air quality gets better.”

GenOn: Local plant meets standards

Those plants include the GenOn plant in Springdale and the Edison Mission Energy Homer City plant in Indiana County.

“This doesn't change much at all,” said Dave Gaier spokesman for NRG Energy Inc. in Princeton, N.J., owner and operator of the former GenOn plant in Springdale. NRG and GenON merged on Dec. 14.

“We meet the standards now and will continue to meet the federal and state requirements,” Gaier said.

Meanwhile, the operators of the Homer City plant aren't sure.

“The scrubbers we're installing on the Homer City plant will result in a significant reduction of particulate emissions,” said Andy Katell, spokesman at GE Energy Financial Services, the Homer City power plant's majority owner.

“But because the state of Pennsylvania hasn't yet set limits under the revised EPA standards, we don't know whether additional steps would be needed to comply. Also not known is the potential financial impact of complying with new particulate limits.”

To meet the new standards, DEP will increase monitoring and make recommendations to EPA by December about whether a particular area of the state meets the standard, according to Kevin Sunday, the DEP's deputy press secretary.

“If EPA designates an area as ‘non-attainment,' DEP would have three years to develop a plan to bring that area into attainment,” he said. “Areas must attain within five years of designation, though EPA may grant extensions of up to five years.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or Contributing: Tribune-Review News Service and the Washington Post.

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