The Austin Chronicle

Texas Gets Coal Shoulder for the Health of It

By Katherine Gregor, June 11, 2010, News

On Thursday, June 3, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new, more stringent health standards for sulfur dioxide emissions – the first new SO2 standard in 40 years. The EPA said the new standard is needed to protect people with asthma and other respiratory problems, children, and the elderly, estimating that a one-hour SO2 health standard of 75 parts per billion will prevent 2,300 to 5,900 premature deaths and 54,000 asthma attacks a year. The American Lung Association (which had sued the EPA to force it to address SO2 levels) lauded the change, saying it protects communities exposed to the highest SO2 levels – including Texans living near coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries, diesel exhaust, and other sources.

The final rules, fought by the utility industry, make it less lucrative to operate older coal plants and petroleum refineries in Texas and nationally. The rules require new monitors to be placed where SO2 emissions affect populated areas by the end of 2012; the EPA will identify areas in nonattainment by 2012 as well. Some utility companies have said the costs of adding new emissions-scrubbing equipment will lead them to close older coal-fired plants. According to an Associated Press report, Progress Energy intends to close 11 North Carolina plants that are more than 50 years old.

Austin Energy spokesperson Ed Clark said of the new SO2 standard, "I think we're going to be fine, because we're installing scrubbers right now on the two units at the Fayette Power Plant project" that lack them. The cost is about $430 million, split between co-owners the Lower Colorado River Authority and the city of Austin. Henry Eby at LCRA said the scrubbers were a permit condition agreed to in 2002. "If further requirements are imposed on existing Texas power plants as a result of this SO2 standard," Eby said, "our scrubbers would certainly satisfy them."

"Austin may see a slight improvement in air quality, since some sulfur dioxide drifts in the local airshed," said Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. He pointed to the Texas Lehigh Cement plant in Buda as perhaps the largest local source and said many large industrial sources in Texas will have to reduce emissions to meet the new standard.

EPA estimated the cost nationally in 2020 to fully implement the standard at $1.5 billion; it estimates resulting health benefits in the range of $13 billion to $33 billion a year.

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