Hope for a cooler planet, and a healthier Forest Preserve, has waned with the Trump Administration’s introduction of the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule and notice of plans to dramatically weaken the Mercury Rule—the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants. If the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ACE Rule is implemented, and the Mercury Rule is weakened as proposed, it is likely that use of aging coal-fired power plants will increase substantially without any requirement to reduce acid deposition, or mercury and greenhouse gas emissions.
How could this happen? You may remember the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was proposed by the EPA under the Obama Administration. ADK members sent hundreds of letters in support of the CPP, which called for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector of 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. The CPP was the primary tool for the U.S. to meet the emissions reduction target pledged at the U.N. climate talks in Paris in 2015.
Unfortunately, the CPP was put on hold by the Supreme Court in 2016. Twenty-seven states, including the leaders West Virginia and Texas, along with various companies and business groups, challenged the CPP because it mandated that the states must phase out coal-burning power plants.
Gutting the Clean Power Plan
The proposed ACE Rule is the current administration’s replacement for the CPP. The Washington Post of August 18, 2018, predicts that it will result in the release of twelve times the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere compared to the CPP, and reports that “The (EPA’s) own impact analysis, which runs nearly 300 pages, projects that the proposal would make only slight cuts to overall emissions of pollutants, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—over the next decade.” The analysis predicts a cut of CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by between 0.7 and 1.5 percent, or the equivalent of taking 2.7 million to 5.3 million cars off the road. Conversely, the CPP would have cut CO2 emissions by 19 percent, or the equivalent to taking 75 million cars off the road.
Researchers from Harvard University predict that the impact of this significant difference will be felt close to home, estimating that failure to reduce emissions will result in 36,000 deaths due to poor air quality, and respiratory issues for an additional 630,000 children.
For decades, the coal industry has been attempting to change the process used to determine whether or not a power-generating facility must incorporate emission reduction devices during power plant maintenance and upgrades, under New Source Review (NSR) regulations. Under ACE, they have succeeded in replacing the current standard of an annual emissions rate increase test with an hourly test. This creates a loophole to avoid a threshold trigger mandating the use of emission reduction devices.
About a dozen years ago, ADK filed a legal action in the federal courts to challenge the very same changes in NSR acid rain provisions that are contained in the ACE proposal. The industry’s objective then (and now) was to allow coal-burning power plants to evade the NSR requirement to install flue gas scrubbers, precipitators, and other air pollution control equipment when owners of these plants proposed to make major service life extension projects.
We won at every level, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and as a result of this successful defense of the NSR requirements, pollution control equipment was installed on a number of coal-burning plants, many plants were shut down and replaced by natural gas–powered generating plants, and some plants were retrofitted to burn natural gas. The effect was to reduce acid deposition particulate matter and smog.
We also successfully defended EPA regulations to reduce the amount of mercury emitted by coal-burning plants. As a result, many plant owners modified their equipment when they made other NSR modifications, or they switched to natural gas, which does not create mercury emissions.
Now, at this writing the current administration proposes to repeal a 2011 EPA finding of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that in regulating a toxic pollutant (i.e., mercury from coal-fired power plants), the federal government must take into account additional health benefits, or “co-benefits,” of the simultaneous reduction of other pollutants that happens in the course of complying with the regulation. This is important in considering the cost of compliance. The economic benefits of these “co-benefits” help provide a legal and economic justification for industry’s cost to comply with the regulation. As power plants have complied with the Mercury Rule by installing technology to reduce emissions of mercury, there has been a “co-benefit” of a reduction in soot and nitrogen oxide, which are linked to asthma and lung disease. With a repeal of the 2011 finding, it is likely that the Trump Administration, along with industry law suits, will be able to dismantle the requirement to reduce mercury emissions.
Acid rain trends
Acid rain deposition from emissions has been a long-standing issue for the New York Forest Preserve. In recent years, there has been a strong recovery trend. Monitoring of Adirondack waters by groups like the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation shows that lakes and ponds assaulted by acid rain are coming back to life and wildlife in these aquatic habitats is thriving. The University at Albany Atmospheric Science Research Center, which monitors precipitation near the summit of Whiteface Mountain, has seen a remarkable decrease in acidity, which is great news for the Adirondacks.
The bad news? The current administration is working diligently to undo this critical recovery by actions such as the ACE Rule and the dramatic weakening of the Mercury Rule.
Upwind coal-fired power plants emit high levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are significant contributors to the formation of ozone, acid rain, and acid deposition in the Adirondacks and the Catskills. These emissions react with other compounds in the air to form acids, which reach earth through rain, snow, and fog, or as dry particles. The burning of bituminous coal also results in emissions of mercury.
In the Northeast, numerous acid sensitive forest and freshwater aquatic regions suffer from ecological damage and health problems associated with acid rain and acid deposition. As one example, acid deposition sets off a deadly chain of events for fish. High levels of acidic deposition and high soil acidity, to which power plant emissions contribute, occur in the forested regions in the Adirondacks and Catskills. When combined with low soil calcium levels, acid deposition often fosters the release of aluminum from the soil to water bodies. Aluminum, in combination with high acidity levels, is highly toxic. It disrupts the salt and water balance in fish, which can rupture blood cells and thicken blood, placing an enormous strain on internal organs, leading to illness and death.
Acid deposition also has a deadly impact on other plant and animal life in the Northeast. Where it accelerates leaching of calcium from soil, it adversely affects plant life by depleting soils of this essential nutrient. Elevated levels of acid in soil cause nutrients to leach out of trees, which can cause a nutrient imbalance, reducing the trees’ ability to respond to environmental stresses such as cold weather, drought, and insect infestation. At high elevations, red spruce trees have suffered serious decline as a result of acid deposition. In turn, animals that depend on plant life for food suffer as plant growth is affected. Mercury depositions in waters and soils also result in the buildup of the neurotoxin methylmercury in the food chain in lakes in the Northeast.
Controlling pollution from power plants will reap important environmental benefits throughout the Northeast. Not only will it help to continue to reduce harmful acidification of lakes and rivers; it will also improve visibility and human health by decreasing low-level ozone.
Emissions must stop
Clearly, we must end harmful emissions from coal-fired power plants. In 2018, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) exceeded 411 parts per million (ppm), a value that pushes us closer to extremely dangerous concentration levels, compared to 280 ppm in 1880 — a 46 percent increase in a short period of time. While it is true that the Earth in its history had much higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2, these were not environments in which human beings or many of our current species existed. At the boundary of Eocene-Oligocene Epochs, around 34 million years ago, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was at much higher levels, the earth was a much different place with high temperatures, high precipitation, and no ice. The changes we are seeing now are happening very quickly, in terms of geologic time and trends, and are clearly connected to human activity through the burning of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gas emissions.
The proposed ACE Rule and the weakening of the Mercury Rule are actions in the wrong direction at a critical time. When we should be working to protect the Adirondacks and Catskills, the health of our families and communities, and the future sustainability of life on Earth, these rules create loopholes for industry to continue to pollute and exacerbate atmospheric CO2 that is already too high, increase toxic mercury deposition, and continue to cause harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
The ACE proposal is intended to give new life to coal-burning electric power plants that were being phased out or converted to run on natural gas, which is increasingly cheaper and more plentiful. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are rapidly increasing their share of the electric-generation market. These market-driven forces may help to temper the impact of ACE, which it can be hoped will not be able to reverse the decline of coal-fired power plants. Inevitably, the ACE Rule and changes to the Mercury Rule will be challenged in court, with ADK likely joining in that litigation.
—Neil Woodworth and Cathy Pedler