A lifesaving rule for Mid-Atlantic residents

"The end of America's tailpipe." That description from Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper reflects what those of us in the Mid-Atlantic breathe, as millions of tons of pollution from coal-fired power plants spew into our communities year-round. But a new opportunity is here to help plug that tailpipe.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a "good neighbor" rule, called the Clean Air Transport Rule, that would cut power plant pollution spreading across the border of 31 eastern states and the District of Columbia.

The EPA's proposal would do what we in the Mid-Atlantic cannot do: clean up the pollution blowing into our states from the Midwest and the Southeast. The proposal requires coal-fired power plants to install new equipment that will reduce millions of tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions — noxious gases that form ozone and fine particles.

These pollutants from power plants cause asthma attacks, heart attacks and lung cancer, and increase the risk of hospital admissions and emergency room visits. Our natural defenses help us cough or sneeze larger particles out of our bodies but are helpless to block out smaller particles that get trapped in the lungs. Ozone and particle pollution are wind-driven, life-threatening toxins.

The EPA proposes to cut air pollution that flows from upwind states beginning in 2012. By 2014, the Clean Air Transport Rule and other state and EPA actions would reduce power plant SO2 by 71 percent over 2005 levels and NO2 emissions by 52 percent.

You'll hear arguments that the Transport Rule timeline for compliance by 2012 is too short and too expensive and that it may make the electricity supply less reliable. Fortunately, none of that is true.

The Transport Rule would not disrupt the flow of affordable electricity for American consumers and businesses. Last month, a study on the impact of the rule found that the rule posed no problem keeping electricity as a dependable resource. That study was funded by power companies.

The EPA says electricity prices would increase less than 2 percent as a result of the pollution reduction requirements. What this action would do, according to the EPA, is yield $120 billion to $290 billion in annual health and welfare benefits by 2014. It would help save 14,000 to 36,000 lives; prevent 23,000 heart attacks; avoid 240,000 asthma attacks; and keep students in school and workers on the job for 1.9 million days they would have missed due to health problems. These benefits far outweigh the estimated annual cost of $2.8 billion to the utilities.

It's time we deal with power plant pollution at its source and help protect communities like Baltimore from pollution it didn't create.

Dennis C. Alexander is regional executive director of the American Lung Association. His e-mail is dalexander@lungusa.org. Christine Guhl is a field organizer for the Sierra Club of Pennsylvania.

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