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DEP calculates health benefits of reduced air pollution; methodology questioned

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 5:24 p.m.

Pennsylvania's air quality improvement resulted in $14 billion to $37 billion in annual public health benefits, in part because of a shift to more natural gas power generation, state environmental officials said on Tuesday.

Environmental groups immediately questioned the figures.

The state mandated that gas producers and pipeline companies provide data about pollutants and tallied air impacts as part of an effort to judge air pollution resulting from the gas drilling boom. The industry's primary pollution comes from ozone-causing nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide — more than 23,000 tons per year combined — but is less than 9 percent of what other industries produce, according to the data.

Replacing coal with natural gas to generate electricity provided large reductions in overall pollution, the state Department of Environmental Protection said. The DEP calculated drastic reductions in pollution statewide and billions of dollars of public benefits from fewer sick days, fewer hospital and doctor visits, and longer lives.

Environmental groups questioned the DEP's methodology behind the calculations. The Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution wrote the agency about drilling and processing companies it left out. The agency didn't create a uniform method for companies to measure and report data, said George Jugovic Jr., leader of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

It “is a bit like telling two people to measure the amount of water in a bathtub without knowing that one was using a bucket and the other a ruler,” Jugovic, a former DEP official, said in an email. “How do you know the margin of error unless you know the accuracy and precision of how the numbers were derived?”

There are several ways to calculate emissions, depending on each company's technology, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said. All were verified through other regulatory efforts and the department gave each company the flexibility to use what's best, Sunday said.

“The results are valid,” Sunday said.

The department made the emission data available online at bit.ly/SPZ7mP.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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