Pennsylvania improves but remains near bottom in air quality rankings

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Still one of the most polluted states in the nation, Pennsylvania ranks third behind only Kentucky and Ohio in generation of toxic air pollution, with 78 percent of that total coming from coal-fired power plants.

Toxic air pollution generated by Pennsylvania power plants represents 10 percent of the total from all U.S. power plants.

But some good news can make Pennsylvanians breathe a bit easier: From 2009 to 2010, total toxic air pollution from all sources in the state dropped by 20 percent, including a 24 percent decline in toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

On Thursday, the Natural Resources Defense Council released its second annual report, "Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate our Air and States," which lists the 20 states that produce the most toxic pollution. Pennsylvania improved slightly in its ranking, falling from second place in 2011 (based on 2009 data) with 50.5 million pounds of total toxic emissions to third place this year (based on 2010 data) with 40.3 million pounds.

About 82 percent of that pollution came from coal-fired power plants in 2009, the NRDC stated, with the 2010 total dipping to 31.5 million, which represents 78 percent of the state's total toxic air pollution.

Pennsylvania also ranked third in the nation in mercury pollution generated by power plants with 3,960 pounds emitted in 2010. That total represents a majority of mercury air pollution generated in Pennsylvania and 6 percent of the total generated by the U.S. electrical power sector.

Nationwide, toxic pollution in 2010 dropped 19 percent compared with 2009 and a 4 percent decrease in emissions of mercury emissions -- a dangerous neurotoxin that causes great health damage.

"Residents of the Toxic 20 and surrounding states may be exposed to dangerous levels of toxic pollution and could face increased risk of certain health disorders," the NRDC report states.

"Make no mistake, we have a long way to go," said John Walke, clean air director for NRDC. the report found coal and oil contribute 44 percent of all pollution reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory, which tabulates state and national air pollution totals.

The NRDC also advocated retention of EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, as certain members of Congress have attempted to do. The report cited EPA data stating that MATS will reduce mercury and other air toxic emissions by 79 percent by 2014.

These anticipated reductions in pollution will prevent 1,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 hospital visits, 4,700 heart attacks, and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis in 2016, the report states. "The public health improvements are also estimated to save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or sick days each year."

Pollution reductions will bring $4.4 billion in health benefits to Pennsylvanians by 2016, the report states.

Despite such benefits, the NRDC said, power companies continue to sue to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while some members of Congress repeatedly have sought to repeal, weaken or delay regulations, it says.

Key reasons for improved air quality include the nationwide transition from coal to natural gas, along with EPA requirements that all power plants install pollution controls, including scrubbers, in anticipation of tighter pollution standards.

Jake Smeltz, vice president of the Electric Power Generation Association that represents the power-generation industry in the state, said Pennsylvania's ranking isn't surprising considering it's the second-largest power producer in the nation with current production of 47,000 megawatts and its continuing dependence on fossil fuels.

But from 2006 to 2011, electricity production from coal dropped 10 percent, while the use of natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel, rose by an equal amount. The current "adapt or die" energy market continues to favors natural gas. Six coal-fired power plants statewide including the Elrama Power Plant in northeastern Washington County, the New Castle Power Plant in Lawrence County and the Shawville Power Plant in Clearfield County are scheduled to close by the end of 2015.

The transition from coal to natural gas is likely to continue, with improvements in air quality.

"At the present time there are many more struggles for the coal-power sector, and it's not getting any easier," Mr. Smeltz said.

state - environment

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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