WASHINGTON -- In a step meant to control the windblown smog that drifts across state lines toward the Northeast, the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday ordered 22 states to significantly reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides, the main pollutant that causes smog.
The rule is the broadest regional attack ever mounted on nitrogen oxides, which come mainly from burning fossil fuels. Although the results are not expected to be dramatic or immediate, over the long term they are intended to bring some relief to many smog-afflicted states, especially in downwind states whose pollution comes partly from power plants and other sources in the industrial Midwest.
The EPA ruling comes after a year of bitter feuding among governors over how much the upwind states -- most of them in the Midwest -- should be held accountable for pollution that affects the downwind states, which are located in the Northeast. The governors from the upwind states argued that the rule was unnecessary, unjust and unaffordable.
The new regulation calls for reductions in emissions by 28 percent over the next nine years, with more than half the reductions coming in just six states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. To hold down the costs, the agency encouraged states to set up a pollution trading system for electric utilities similar to the approach that has been used to control sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain.
The EPA estimated that the rules would cost an average of $1.7 billion annually over the next 15 years, but said the resulting health benefits were worth the expense, which is likely to fall most heavily on electric utilities. The agency estimated that this cost would amount to about one dollar on an average household's monthly electric bill, but said that this might not be noticeable while electricity rates decline as the industry restructures.
"While EPA does not tell the states how to achieve their targets, our plan does demonstrate that the most cost-effective way to reduce these emissions is to focus on the largest, least-controlled sources, and that is primarily the major utility plants," said Carol Browner, the EPA administrator.
The EPA said that of 117 counties in the region that met the old air quality standard but violated the new, stricter standard, 114 would come back into compliance by adopting the measures recommended in its new regulation, with no further steps required.
But other areas, like the New York metropolitan area, which are even dirtier, will have to take additional steps in the years ahead if they are ever to meet the tough air quality standards. After all, only part of New York's smog problem comes from smokestacks in other states.
Environmental advocacy groups praised the rule, which midwestern utilities and governors had vigorously opposed.
"This is truly an historic action -- one that will mean cleaner air throughout the Midwest and East," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington. "We're talking about some of the biggest sources of pollution in the nation. Many of these dirty electric plants have avoided pollution controls for decades. Now they will finally have to modernize."
David Flannery, the legal counsel for the Midwest Ozone Group, a coalition of coal and utility companies, said that "for electric utilities and their customers, and those that supply fuel to them, the rulemaking is a disaster."
"I think it is a virtual certainty that this will be litigated," he said.
About 132 million people live in the 22 states covered by the new regulation, and the EPA said that 31 million of them lived in areas where the rule would clean up the air enough to meet the strict new health standards for smog that the Clinton administration announced last year.
Smog is formed when oxides of nitrogen and other chemicals react in the sunlight to become ozone, a chemical that aggravates asthma, damages the lungs, and causes other problems. It is the most pervasive air pollutant in the United States. Besides reducing smog, the regulations on emissions of nitrogen oxides will help control acid rain.
The Clinton administration, which for years had been discussing with the states how to forge a regional strategy for reducing smog, proposed the rule last year, a few months after it took a separate action to toughen the national air quality standard for smog.
According to environmental advocacy groups, every state covered by the new regulations violated the new health standards for smog during the past few months, some of them dozens of times.
The new requirements apply to the District of Columbia and 22 states: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
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