Pennsylvania's proposal to control smog-forming emissions from coal-fired power plants sets limits so lax that most of those facilities could continue to operate without the pollution controls they've already installed, just as they're doing now, according to two environmental organizations that have reviewed the rules.
The Sierra Club and the Clean Air Council review found that the state's proposed rules for controlling emissions of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds could be met now at 85 percent of coal-fired power plants in the state, including all of the larger power plants.
The review also notes that Pennsylvania's proposed Reasonably Attainable Control Technology rules, known as RACT, are up to four times less stringent than similar pollution controls either already adopted or under consideration in Maryland, New York and Delaware.
The new rules, formulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection, also propose technology that the groups say is inferior to the equipment at the majority of power plants in the state. And they say the rules would allow power companies to calculate their emissions limits based on longer-term averages from multiple facilities, a method that could produce higher emissions and "hot spots" of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds.
The rules will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin Saturday, kicking off a 60-day public comment period that will include public hearings in Norristown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The hearing dates have not yet been scheduled.
"It's common sense to make coal [power] plants use the pollution-cutting technology they already have, yet Gov. [Tom] Corbett's plan fails to do so," said Joanne Kilgore, Pennsylvania Chapter director of the Sierra Club. "Cutting pollution from coal plants is an easy fix that will protect our kids' lungs, prevent frightening and expensive hospital visits and save lives."
According to the DEP, coal-fired power plants emitted 130,683 tons of nitrogen oxides, or 78 percent of all the nitrogen oxides emitted in the state from all sources in 2012.
In response to questions about whether the new RACT rules will require the state's 31 coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions, Morgan Wagner, a DEP spokeswoman issued the following statement: "As proposed, certain EGU (electric generating unit) owners and operators will need to optimize their current operations to reduce their allowable NOx emissions in order to comply with a 30-day rolling average NOx limit. The proposed RACT II NOx emission rates are lower than the current RACT allowable emission rates."
The DEP statement also notes that implementation of federal mercury and air toxics standards over the next two years will result in "significant collateral NOx emission reductions."
But the state's proposed NOx emissions limits of 0.4 pounds per 1 million BTU (British thermal units) would affect only seven of the coal-fired power plants in the state, producing just 3 percent of the power from all coal-fired power plants. The largest in the state, FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, emitted just 0.11 pounds of nitrogen oxides per 1 million BTU, or about one-fourth of the new limit proposed by the state.
Pennsylvania, like other states with areas that can't attain health-based air quality standards, is required to make the changes in its emissions rules to comply with more stringent federal clean air regulations. More than 8 million Pennsylvanians, mostly in the southwest and southeast regions of the state, live in areas that are not in attainment of federal smog standards.
Smog can cause serious health effects, including asthma and heart attacks, stroke and premature death.
"There are kids going to the hospital on high smog days," said Kim Teplitzky, a Sierra Club spokeswoman. "It's unconscionable that the DEP is not doing more to limit these dangerous emissions."
Cristina Fernandez, associate director of air program planning at the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the DEP didn't made the draft regulations available for review by the agency prior to their publication.
"We have not seen the regs. The state isn't required to show us the draft regs, and we've had no input," she said. "We have monthly calls, but if the state doesn't share the draft with us, we don't see it."
Ms. Fernandez said the EPA expects to review and make comments on the proposal during the comment period, and the final-form regulation will be submitted to the agency.
Correction (April 18, 12:37 p.m.) -- The previous version of the article incorrectly stated the amount of nitrogen oxides per 1 million BTU that was emitted by Energy's Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.