Blowing smog: U.S. EPA unfairly puts onus on Midwest

Copyright 1998 Columbus Dispatch
October 5, 1998

In the East, politicians and editorial writers are crowing about the recent order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring 22 states to cut smog-producing nitrogen-oxide emissions by 1.1 million tons by 2003.

The New York Times called EPA Administrator Carol Browner's ruling that seeks more than half of the reductions from just six states, including Ohio, ''a clear victory for public health.''

While the East may congratulate itself for a political victory, promises for cleaner air may not be fulfilled.

Browner projects $ 1.7 billion in costs vs. $ 3.4 billion in public-health savings. The claim remains to be proved.

Coal-burning power plants in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which will be hardest hit by the ruling, indeed contribute a large amount of nitrogen oxide to the environment. And research has shown that it blows eastward, particularly to northeastern parts of the country.

But Eastern states have grossly exaggerated adverse effects for their own political purposes.

Even if all the electric utilities in the Midwest were shut down, the big Eastern cities still would have dirty air. Ohio emissions account for far less than 10 percent of the pollutants that plague Eastern coastal cities.

What's really going on is a shifting of blame and costs.

Most Eastern states have smog levels that are too high. And most of that smog is self-generated. If Ohio doesn't make the required reductions, industry and utilities here will be faced with the same higher plant-construction, energy and air-cleanup costs that threaten to cripple Eastern states.

It is telling that many Eastern states have delayed implementing ozone-reduction measures. Ohio utilities have spent more on pollution controls than 10 Eastern states combined.

Not everyone, surely, will be sympathetic. It is possible that utilities are exaggerating the cost and problems involved. But the dangers for Ohio's economic health are real.

The Ohio EPA estimates the average residential electric bill will increase 10 percent to pay the cost of reducing smog at the smokestack. Higher costs will make Ohio less competitive.

Large industrial companies will have more reason to avoid Ohio, as they calculate the problems and costs of complying with more stringent smog-control requirements. In some parts of the state, the new rules will mean the difference between winning and losing much-needed jobs.

Ohio electric customers also are likely to lose out on some of the savings possible through electric deregulation.

All of this was unnecessary:

Ohio's air is the cleanest it has been in 20 years.

Peak ozone levels have dropped 25 percent.

Ohio and five other states offered an alternative plan that cut power-plant emissions by 65 percent rather than 85 percent and would have looked for other sources of smog.

Short of a reversal by Congress or the courts, the U.S. EPA has forced an arbitrary and unnecessary solution that may not work.

Because nitrogen-oxide emissions are only one of two major components of ozone that are windborne across the country, Midwest utilities may spend millions of dollars reducing nitrogen-oxide emissions, without making the air in New York or Boston one bit cleaner.

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