The nation must en­act tougher stan­dards to ful­fill prom­ise of cleaner air

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed new air qual­ity rules that rep­re­sent an­other im­por­tant step in the long, liti­gious strug­gle to clean up older power plants. But there is still a con­sid­er­able dis­tance to go be­fore Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially those in large cities, can en­joy truly healthy air as en­vi­sioned by the Clean Air Act of 1970. That will re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to keep its prom­ise to seek even tougher stan­dards over the next two years, in­clud­ing re­stric­tions on reg­u­lated pol­lu­tants like mer­cury.

The new rules re­fine and mod­estly im­prove on rules is­sued in 2005 by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that were tossed out by a fed­eral court on tech­ni­cal grounds in 2008. The Bush rules were un­usu­ally ad­ven­tur­ous for an ad­min­is­tra­tion that oth­er­wise did lit­tle to help the cause of cleaner air. They forced elec­tric util­i­ties to make­ma­jor newin­vest­ments in pol­lu­tion-con­trol technology.

The newrules are tai­lored tomeet the court’s ob­jec­tions, and pre­sum­ably are more likely to sur­vive le­gal chal­lenge. They are aimed at re­duc­ing power-plant emis­sions of sul­fur diox­ide and ni­tro­gen ox­ides pro­duced by­more than 900 coal-, gas-and oil-fired boil­ers east of theMis­sis­sippi. Sul­fur diox­ide pro­duces deadly soot par­ti­cles, aswell as acid rain. Ni­tro­gen ox­ides help pro­duce the un­healthy smog that hangs over Amer­i­can cities, es­pe­cially dur­ing op­pres­sive heat waves like the one that has been smother- ing New York City and other east­ern cities.

Ac­cord­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, the new rules will re­duce both pol­lu­tants by hun­dreds of thou­sands of tons a year and­will yield $120 bil­lion in an­nual health ben­e­fits by 2014.

Be­tween 14,000 and 36,000 pre­ma­ture deaths would be avoided, as would thou­sands of non­fa­tal heart attacks and cases of acute bron­chi­tis.

The ruleswill also im­prove vis­i­bil­ity in state and na­tional parks and pro­tect ecosys­tems sen­si­tive to acid rain, in­clud­ing lakes and streams in the Adiron­dacks. In­dus­try will be forced to un­der­take fur­ther in­vest­ments in­mod­ern pol­lu­tion con­trols, and some com­pa­nies­may choose to re­tire their dirt­i­est coal-fired plants. But the ben­e­fits of the new rules so plainly out­weigh their es­ti­mated an­nual costs of $2.8 bil­lion that the elec­tri­cal util­i­ties seemed re­signed to them, how­ever grudg­ingly.

That is un­likely to be the case with other EPA rules now in the pipe­line. Lisa Jack­son, the agency’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, has promised by next year a rule that would im­pose con­trols on power-plant emis­sions of mer­cury, which are now un­reg­u­lated. In­dus­try has op­posed such con­trols as too ex­pen­sive and is al­most cer­tain to do so again. Also in the works are tighter health stan­dards for ozone, due in 2012.

Jack­son’s task is to get the news­mog and soot rules fi­nal­ized, then stay the course.

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