A year ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised the national standard for air quality and ordered every state to submit an attainment plan.
Gov. Frank O'Bannon did just that, offering a tough but realistic plan to cut emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxide, or NOx, by 65 percent from Indiana's coal-fired power plants.
The plan is tough because it sets a higher standard than the electric utilities wanted. It is realistic because the most modern coal-fired power plants in Europe and Japan are proving such reductions can be achieved.
It would give Indiana a very good chance of complying with the new clean air standards. More importantly, it would end the debate over whether Indiana's smokestacks are contributing to smog formation on the East Coast. This state would no longer be producing enough airborne pollution to have even a minuscule effect downwind.
But EPA Administrator Carol Browner last week summarily rejected O'Bannon's plan, as well as plans submitted by other state governments. She instead opted for a one-size-fits-all approach that will cost twice as much, or more, yet bring little additional improvement in air quality.
The EPA director that Indiana and 21 other states east of the Mississippi River reduce NOx emissions by 85 percent.
That requirement, if it stands, is a monumental undertaking. It would lock Indiana's electric utilities into investing well over $ 1 billion for the most expensive, and as-of-yet unproven, anti-pollution equipment.
A catalytic converter - the size of a large house - would have to be installed on the exhaust flue of virtually every boiler in Indiana. At high temperatures, the device would convert NOx and ammonia to nitrogen and water.
O'Bannon's plan, by contrast, would give utilities leeway to use less costly methods on cleaner burning boilers.
Both plans require the equipment to be in place by 2003. To meet that deadline, every boiler requiring a catalytic device would have to be taken out of service for 10 to 14 weeks. And the work could be done only during the spring and fall when electric demand is low.
Even so, it raises a very real threat of rolling blackouts because of reduced electrical capacity.
And there is no guarantee this equipment will achieve the 85 percent reduction Browner has ordered. Even the cleanest, most efficient coal-fired boilers in Europe are getting no more than 75 to 80 percent reductions with it, says Mike Geers, senior environmental engineer for Cinergy.
Under the O'Bannon plan, Indiana would have quickly become a leader in achieving clean-burning coal technology. And it would have come at an affordable price. The EPA's plan, by contrast, would raise utility bills by as much as 5 to 10 percent, which would be a major blow to the economy.
This is neither a partisan nor ideological battle. O'Bannon is joined in opposing the EPA plan by nine of Indiana's 10 representatives in Congress. It boils down to a question of common sense. Why should Hoosiers be forced to pay double or triple the amount it would take to get the job done?
We'll never get an answer to that question from the EPA. We can only hope O'Bannon prevails in the long run.
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