WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed a new federal plan to reduce the pollution from electric power plants that wafts hundreds of miles across state lines.
The new rule would require pollution reductions in 31 states and the District of Columbia — most of the Eastern half of the U.S., from Texas and Minnesota to the coast.
To make the cuts, power plants would be required to install new equipment or use lower-sulfur fuels.
The plan is one of the most significant steps the EPA has taken toward cleaning the air for millions of Americans who live in areas where the quality of the air doesn't meet national standards.
It comes after many months of planning since a federal court ordered the EPA to revise its 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule. Coincidentally, it was announced in the middle of an Eastern heat wave, when smoggy air was at unhealthy levels from North Carolina to New York state.
Smog aggravates asthma and acute bronchitis and is linked to heart attacks. The EPA estimates that when the new plan is in effect in 2014 it will save as many as 36,000 lives a year. The agency says the rule also would improve visibility in parks and help protect natural environments that pollution has harmed, including Appalachian streams, lakes in the Adirondack Mountains and coastal waters.
"What this is attempting to do is give people cleaner air to breathe," said Gina McCarthy, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation.
The EPA estimated that electricity prices would increase less than 2 percent as a result of the pollution reduction requirements. It estimated that the benefits, mostly from better public health, would be $120 billion to $290 billion annually by 2014, and the compliance cost would be $2.8 billion per year
The new rule won't become final until after a 60-day public comment period, expected to begin later this month. The final rule is expected by mid-2011.
The plan calls for the federal government to set a pollution limit for each state that produces pollution that crosses into another state. The previous plan allowed for a regional rather than state-by-state limit.
Only limited trading of pollution permits among states would be allowed. The earlier EPA plan, from the Bush administration, allowed regional trading.
If the plan becomes final, states will be required to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that cross state lines beginning in 2012.
"Power plants spew so much of these pollutants that they must be cleaned up if our nation hopes to reduce the burden of ozone smog and particle pollution in the East and Midwest," Charles D. Connor, the president of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. He said the new rule was an important step forward but needed to be strengthened.
Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group for power plants, said the power industry already had reduced emissions over the past two decades. He said the EPA's proposal would require "dramatic reductions in power sector emissions, on top of major reductions to date, on a very short timeline." In addition, he said, a further change in the ozone standard that's expected soon "leaves the power sector exposed to a great deal of regulatory uncertainty."
The new rule applies to all power plants, but coal is the most polluting fuel.
The EPA is planning other pollution reductions — including stricter standards for ozone, or smog — later this year. It's expected to tighten restrictions on mercury and other hazardous pollutants, as well. The agency also is considering whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. A combination of these regulations would add costs for coal-fired power plants.
McCarthy said the transport rule by itself wasn't likely to force any of the country's older and dirtier coal plants to shut down.
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