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EPA: Utilities, Mines Worst U.S. Polluters

EPA: Utilities, Mines Worst U.S. Polluters

More toxic pollution is emitted from electric utilities and mines than any other industries in the U.S. --- up to 63% of the nation's reported releases --- according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA released its annual Toxic Chemical Inventory Report last week, which for the first time included fossil fuel-burning utilities - but it wasn't a "first" for which the industries would most like to be known.

The reporting period covered emissions released from facilities between 1997 and 1998, and included seven industrial sectors. The annual reports are required under EPA's Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires certain industries to report on releases to the environment of 650 listed chemicals.

EPA's annual report, also known as the TRI, is not a condemnation of the industries that report, rather it is a listing --- made available by company reporting --- that details the types and amounts of certain emissions that contribute to pollution. Until the 1998 reporting period, manufacturing plants had been the only facilities required to report toxic emissions. EPA upgraded its rules in 1997, adding seven more types to report, including electric utilities, mines and commercial hazardous waste facilities.

Electric utilities' sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid emissions put them in second place for their first year's inclusion, second only to mining facilities, which topped the list. Mines, which EPA says accounted for 3.5 billion pounds of toxins released in 1998, released both toxic heavy metals unearthed in the mining process, as well as materials added to ores to leach out recovered minerals.

According to EPA 1998 data, top five electric utility emitters in the country, and their total releases in pounds located in Ohio, 113,923,643; West Virginia, 75,881,813; Pennsylvania, 73,183,707; Florida, 68,738,697; and Indiana, 61,887,971.

American Electric Power Co. in West Virginia was that state's leading toxic polluter, with reported emissions of more than 41 million pounds of acid aerosols from fuel combustion and metals. In Maryland, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE), a unit of Constellation Energy Group Inc., reported releases totaling 11.4 million pounds - the highest toxic pollution of any company in the state.

According to the consumer advocacy U.S. Public Interest Research Group, U.S. electric utilities released 1.1 billion pounds of toxins in 1998, including hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride.

"We now have a much more comprehensive record of toxics in our environment," said EPA regional administrator Bradley Campbell. "As we expand and refine the toxics reporting process, we raise public awareness, and our ability to make more informed environmental decisions."

At BGE, officials supported EPCRA, and pointed to the fact that electric consumption is higher, and thus, higher emissions will be reflected in that.

"The community has a right to know how we operate our plants," said Ronald W. Lowman, BGE vice president, Fossil Energy. In April 1999, BGE launched an education campaign to inform the public of the high-volume, low-impact releases that are natural byproducts of coal and oil combustion. "The amount of emissions is directly related to the amount of energy produced to meet customer demand for power," said BGE officials.

"The EPA and the state of Maryland have strict regulations on emissions and BGE meets or is below all of those requirements," said Lowman. "We're striving to reduce plant emissions even further with the help of new technologies."

BGE's six coal-fired plants produce more than 2,000 MW of electricity, and supply about 40% of the electricity used in central Maryland. Lowman pointed to an effort by BGE to lower emissions by installing Selective Catalytic Reduction Technology in both units of its Brandon Shores Power Plant, and in Unit 3 of the adjacent Wagner Power Plant. The technology works like the catalytic converter in an automobile, according to BGE, and will reduce Brandon Shores' nitrogen oxide emissions by 90%. That move will make the plant the "cleanest coal-fired plant of its size" in the country, according to BGE. SRC technology is expected to be operational there by May 2001, and at Wagner the following year.

Though it had no comment last week on the EPA report, earlier this week, AEP asked a court in San Francisco to dismiss the claims against it in a pending lawsuit by EPA related to emissions from its coal-fired plants.

"AEP believes firmly that these complaints are without merit," said Janet Henry, assistant counsel for AEP in a statement. "We have complied with both the letter and spirit of environmental laws and regulations."

In November 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of EPA, filed a lawsuit against seven major utilities for failing to reduce emissions at older coal-fired plants that EPA claims are the cause of airborne pollution in most of the Northeast. EPA and the Justice Department announced enforcement actions against AEP and six other electric utilities, and the states of New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont intervened in the case. On March 1, the Justice Department and EPA added 12 more facilities to the lawsuit.

The gist of the legal battle is this: EPA contends that the nation's utilities ignored a 1970 federal law requiring older plants to install anti-pollution equipment when they made major modifications to their facilities. The federal Clean Air Act (CAA) allows facilities to be grandfathered in, which exempts them from meeting some of the more stringent regulations as long as they do not add generating capacity or increase their use of coal. Under the CAA, any grandfathered plant that made major modifications had to apply to EPA for a permit, and had to add state-of-the-art pollution equipment.

However, Columbus, OH's AEP argued that the requirement was not applied to routine activities such as maintenance, replacing old or broken equipment, or other regular repairs to ensure reliable, safe and efficient operation. It said AEP projects cited in EPA's lawsuits fit the description of routine activities, and said that none of the maintenance work resulted in an increase in generating capacity, but some had helped to reduce plant emissions.

Carolyn Davis, Houston

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