Coal plants faced with new limits; Emission rule to cost millions, utilities say

By Peter Kendall, Tribune Environment Writer
Copyright 1998 Chicago Tribune
September 25, 1998

Recognizing that wind blows pollution over state lines, the federal government on Thursday set strict new pollution limits on coal burning power plants in Illinois and other states that cause smog problems for their neighbors.

Utilities immediately blasted the new rules, saying they would cost millions and perhaps create power shortages.

The new standards are the result of scientists beginning to unravel the windblown complexities of "ozone transport," or how emissions of one chemical can lead to pollution by an entirely different chemical hundreds of miles away.

Nitrogen oxides from Illinois coal plants have been linked by government computer models to ozone pollution in New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, Rhode Island and several other states.

And in Illinois, summertime smog can be blamed in part on pollution wafting in from power plants in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee.

"Over the past 20 to 30 years, we focused on improving air quality in areas like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but we still see these areas go over the standards," said Douglas Aburano, an environmental engineer with the U.S. EPA. "We realized over the last couple years that it is transported from rural areas to urban areas, or from one urban area to another, like Chicago to Milwaukee."

To meet the new standards, Illinois coal plants will have to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxide--which mixes with other chemicals in sunlight to form ozone pollution--by 32 percent by 2003.

Commonwealth Edison and Illinois Power estimated that it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to install the behemoth equipment needed to clean the hot gases that blow from dozens of coal plant boilers around the state.

The utilities also raised the specter of electricity shortages as plants are taken off line to install the new equipment, which can take up to five months. In Illinois, reserve margins of power are already perilously thin.

The new rules, announced in Washington, D.C., by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner, are a victory for the Northeast states, which marshaled science and politics to establish that much of their pollution problem is imported from the Ohio River Valley, the South and the Midwest.

As a result, West Virginia will have to cut its output of nitrogen oxide by 51 percent. Downwind, Connecticut has to cut back by just 7 percent, New Jersey by 9 percent and New York by 6 percent.

Environmentalists cheered the new standards, which utility companies had been lobbying hard to kill.

"We can't say how many (fewer) days we will have smog, but it is going to be an improvement in air quality," said Brian Urbaszewski of the American Lung Association of Chicago.

Utilities received the new standards, hundreds of pages long, on Thursday and had yet to analyze them fully. But on first glance, they found much they didn't like.

The rules will require fixes on all eight of ComEd's coal plants, said Bob Laplaca of ComEd.

Earlier this year, ComEd put those plants up for sale.

"As I see it, the sale price will have to be adjusted downward because now the buyer will have the onus of making the capital investments," Laplaca said.

Illinois Power estimated the cost at "up to $100 million."

Officials at both utilities said there could be delays in completing the work because there will not be enough contractors to go around to all the coal plants in the 22 states affected.

"The studies we have seen for the Southeast or Midwest is that we are going to see some reliability problems when this is happening," said Jene Robinson, manager of environmental resources for Illinois Power.

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