The Clean Air Task Force, a national advocacy organization, released a report Thursday estimating deaths and health problems caused by fine particle pollution from power plants. Georgia ranked ninth in the nation for health problems from this type of pollution, up from 11th five years ago.
And Plant Scherer in Monroe County was ranked the second-worst power plant in the country for the damaging health effects of its fine particle pollution.
However, much of that pollution is expected to be eliminated in the next few years as pollution controls are installed, Georgia Power and state officials said.
Power plants release fine particle pollution mostly in the form of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other compounds that become airborne in such tiny amounts that they can be absorbed deep into the lungs. They can cause asthma, other breathing difficulties and heart problems.
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“This is one more report that shows our power system and regulators continue to support a power model that kills us,” said Jennette Gayer with Environment Georgia. “The good news is we’re seeing some improvement, but we have a long way to go.”
The Clean Air Task Force report, “The Toll from Coal,” estimated that Plant Scherer’s fine particle pollution causes 180 deaths a year, and Plant Branch near Milledgeville causes 140. It also estimated the number of heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions and other health problems caused by each plant.
Bibb County and the portion of Monroe County where Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer is located are in a federal “non-attainment zone” for having unsafe levels of fine particle pollution.
Jac Capp, air branch chief for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the Macon area is now in compliance with national standards for this type of pollution. Georgia is developing a maintenance plan for Middle Georgia, which is required to prevent fine particle pollution from worsening once the non-attainment designation ends. That might take about a year, Capp said.
If it’s approved, the area may again achieve attainment, removing the threat of various increased regulations on emissions from factories and cars as well as power plants.
The Clean Air Task Force report used the same methodology for estimating health effects that is used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and approved by the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, the EPA uses several methods to estimate a range of the number of deaths caused by air pollution, and the Clean Air Task Force used only the most conservative of these.
Capp said it’s unclear exactly what baseline year the report used for creating its 2010 emissions estimates. The technical portion of the report seems to indicate that data is two years old.
Much has happened in two years. Many Georgia power plants began installing new pollution control technology in response to a state rule that gave plants from 2008 until 2015 to dramatically clean up their emissions.
Jeff Wilson, Georgia Power spokesman, said the first scrubbers for removing sulfur dioxide are scheduled to go online at Scherer near the end of this year. When all are installed, 95 percent of Plant Scherer’s sulfur dioxide emissions will be eliminated, he said.
Recent new mercury controls have reduced mercury emissions at Scherer by 80 percent during the past two years, Wilson said.
Plant Branch is scheduled to add these technologies starting in 2013, Capp said.
Georgia Power passed these expenses on to its customers to the tune of $22 million a year from 2008 through 2010. And the company is seeking another rate increase to collect $115 million more in 2011 and $120 million in 2012 for environmental controls, Wilson said.
The task force uses the report results to argue for a strengthened federal rule governing the transport of air pollution from state to state and for Congress to set a more stringent national cap on fine particle pollution from sulfur dioxide by 2018.
The report notes that sulfur dioxide emissions dropped from 10.3 million tons in 2004 to 5.7 million tons in 2009, largely thanks to state rules like Georgia’s, Clean Air Act enforcement and a rule that was supposed to reduce the transport of air pollution across state lines. That rule was struck down by a federal court, but EPA is preparing its replacement.
The burden of existing pollution rests mostly on East Coast states, the report found.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.