Study: Power Plant Clean-Ups to Benefit West Virginians

Studies estimate the new rule’s emissions reductions will prevent between 280 and 710 premature deaths in West Virginia.

The State Journal
13 July 2011
By Pam Kasey

A new round of coal-fired power plant emissions reductions announced July 7 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes with an almost astounding cost-benefit analysis. The cost: about $2.4 billion a year.

The benefit: $120 billion to $280 billion a year — at minimum, 50 times the cost, a range validated earlier this year by a Harvard / MIT analysis.

Those benefits come largely in the form of premature deaths avoided. After reductions begin in 2012, deaths avoided as early as 2014 range from 13,000 to 34,000 annually nationwide.

West Virginia will benefit more than most states.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule cuts power plant emissions that travel downwind over state boundaries.

The rule comes in response to the “good neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act; it supplants the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule, which the U.S. Court of Appeals found inadequate in 2008.

The CSAPR requires 27 states across the eastern half of the nation to reduce power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide, or SO2, and nitrogen oxides, or NOx, that contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution downwind.

The biggest problem is the fine particle pollution: “PM 2.5,” particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns and far smaller than the width of a human hair.

First regulated by the EPA in 1997, PM 2.5 can come from diesel-fueled vehicles, but most of it comes from coal-fired power plants.

It contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular problems ranging from asthma and bronchitis to heart attack and stroke.

“Among airborne particles, the smallest (fine) combustion particles are of gravest concern because they are so tiny that they can be inhaled deeply and be absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to vital organs, thus evading the human lung’s natural defenses,” wrote the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force in a 2010 report.

West Virginia has the highest per capita mortality risk among states, according to that report. The risk was estimated at 14.7 per 100,000 adults in 2010, with more than 20 per 100,000 in some northern counties — statewide, a death count of 214.

Pennsylvania’s and Ohio’s mortalities are next highest at 13.9 per 100,000, and Kentucky’s comes in next at 12.6.

Those are conservative estimates, according to CATF, relying on a method approved by the National Academy of Sciences and using the low end of a range.

The EPA cites a broad range and estimates the benefits from the new rule’s emissions reductions higher still in 2014: for West Virginia, between 280 and 710 premature deaths could be avoided.

It can be hard to directly recognize the effects of pollution reductions because most health conditions have multiple causes, said Alan Ducatman, chairman of Community Medicine at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine.

But “regardless of the source, we are very sure that people who breathe less pollution do better. The data on that are overwhelming. It’s not even an argument,” said Ducatman. “We know for sure that less pollution is better.”

The 2014 benefits follow quickly behind pollution reductions that start in 2012 because, according to the CATF, most fine particle-related deaths are thought to occur within a year or two of exposure.

Under CSAPR, the EPA set emissions allocations for each state and for each generating unit.

West Virginia’s allocation for SO2 emissions drops from 146,000 tons in 2012 to 76,000 tons in 2014; its NOx allocation drops from 59,000 tons to 55,000 tons.

The first threshold may not be a challenge: 2010 power plant emissions across the state came to 109,000 tons of SO2 and 53,000 tons of NOx, well below the 2012 allocations.

Fred Durham, deputy director for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality, was not surprised.

“Many of our larger power plants already have controls on them, and therefore we wouldn’t expect it to really affect them significantly,” said Durham.

But meeting the 2014 allocations will require some action and, since the newer, larger plants already have pollution controls, that could mean either investing to upgrade older, smaller plants or purchasing power elsewhere.

FirstEnergy, which recently bought Allegheny Energy and now supplies electricity generally to the northern and eastern parts of the state, is not yet sure what it will do.

“No decisions have been made at this time regarding which plants in our fleet could be outfitted with control technology to meet the new standards, or which plants might be idled or shut down,” said spokesman Mark Durbin.

However, when the draft rule was released a year ago, DEP’s Durham mentioned Allegheny’s Albright, Rivesville and Willow Island power plants as older, smaller plants without pollution controls that might be candidates for shutdown. That’s about 650 megawatts of the state’s 15,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation capacity.

Appalachian Power, the AEP subsidiary that provides electricity generally in the southern and western parts of the state, announced in June that it likely would shut down, in response to this and other regulations, about 2,100 megawatts of generating capacity in West Virginia. It listed its Kammer, Kanawha River and Philip Sporn generating stations — also smaller, older, less efficient plants.

These plants don’t run often even now, according to Appalachian Power spokeswoman Jeri Matheney. Nevertheless, Matheney said, they are important for meeting power demand on the hottest and coldest days and, without them, the utility may have to contract for purchased power — which, depending on the cost, may increase customer rates.

In 2014, West Virginia’s SO2 emissions will be down about 85 percent from 2005 levels; NOx will be down about 68 percent.