Air Pollution Knows No Borders

Photo by Al Braden

In a victory for public health, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a new  Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would protect Americans from dangerous air pollution from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources in 26 states. The announcement comes weeks after notice was given to 19 states that their plans to curb pollution were insufficient.  

The EPA's proposal would require power plants with pollution controls to actually run them, and for plants lacking controls to come up to industry standards, resulting in cleaner air for millions of Americans, especially those that live downwind from coal power plants. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions react in the presence of heat and sunlight to create ground-level ozone or smog. These emissions can affect air quality and public health locally, regionally, and in states hundreds of miles downwind.

This announcement is a positive step for public health, especially for people living downwind from coal-fired power plants in other states and suffering the effects of cross-state air pollution. For example, even though New York has strong climate policies, the state still has to deal with pollution from upwind states.

“This is where you see the limits on what states can do,” said Hannah Birbaum, the Northeast deputy regional director for energy campaigns for the Sierra Club. “It’s important that the federal government via the EPA is stepping in here.”

She points out that while the Northeast has just two remaining coal power plants, both in New Hampshire, Connecticut, for example, must cope with downwind coal plant pollution. “This is a chance to get rid of coal-based air pollution that we don’t create,” said Birnbaum. “The health outcomes really matter here. We have to worry about asthma and respiratory issues.” 

Several coal plants in Ohio and Indiana continue to spew NOx emissions to states downwind. The Ohio Valley Electric Corporation’s Kyger Creek and Clifty Creek coal plants lack modern pollution technologies to reduce NOx pollution, which gets blown downwind into numerous states, affecting public and environmental health.

“This new rule says we’re thinking about where the emissions are actually coming from,” said Neil Waggoner, Ohio senior campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign. “They’re not just thinking about what’s in our backyard but what’s the root problem.”

Once implemented, the new Cross-State Air Pollution rule will save the lives of thousands of Americans, and many of these improvements will be felt almost immediately. “Protecting the public from air pollution that travels across state lines will prevent a thousand premature deaths annually, as well as 2,400 hospital visits and 1.3 million cases of asthma symptoms per year,” said Holly Bender, senior director of Sierra Club energy campaigns. “The rule would also save Americans $15 billion in annual health costs.”

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