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