Pollution settlements set tone for Earth Day 2003

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   One day before the nation marks its annual celebration of Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to announce the largest Clean Air Act settlement in the nation's history.
   EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, along with officials from EPA enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice, are scheduled to make the announcement at 11 a.m. today at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
   According to Saturday's edition of The New York Times, Dominion Virginia Power Co. has agreed to spend $1.2 billion to install pollution control equipment in eight coal-burning power plants in Virginia and West Virginia. The equipment would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, and nitrogen oxide emissions, which cause smog.
   New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut -- all downwind from Dominion's plants and parties in the agreement -- have maintained for years that emissions from Dominion plants in Virginia and West Virginia were polluting their air. Under the agreement the five states reached with the EPA, Dominion will install more modern controls by 2013 and cut emissions by two-thirds, according to the Times.
   On April 9, the EPA announced a settlement with Alcoa Inc., also related to sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. Alcoa agreed to spend an estimated $330 million to install pollution controls at its coal-fired power plant in Rockdale, Texas.
   The Rockdale facility, located northeast of Austin, is the single largest non-utility source of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in the nation, and prevailing winds carry air pollutants directly into the Austin metropolitan area, according to the EPA.
   Alcoa's plant consists of two aluminum smelters, a power plant that generates electricity for the smelters, and a strip-mining operation that supplies lignite coal for the power plant itself.
   Under the settlement, Alcoa's emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides will be reduced by about 90 percent, removing more than 68,000 tons of pollutants from the air of central Texas each year. These pollutants cause severe respiratory problems and aggravate cases of childhood asthma.
   "Ensuring that Americans have clean air to breathe," according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, "is a priority for the Justice Department," which filed suit along with the EPA.
   These are but a couple of victories proponents of clean air can celebrate this Earth Day.
   Also of note is the EPA's continuing effort to improve air quality. The federal agency is now considering contracts with state, local, and tribal organizations to reduce emissions from diesel-powered vehicles.
   The EPA will award grants totaling $500,000 to transportation fleets such as public and private school buses, waste haulers, private trucking fleets, locomotives, and construction and/or agricultural fleets that agree to retrofit existing diesel engines with improved or new technologies that have been verified to reduce diesel exhaust emissions under the EPA's Voluntary Diesel Retrofit program.
   The projects are primarily targeted to reduce particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. The EPA expects to issue five to 10 grants in the $50,000 to $100,000 range.
   Last week, the EPA also marked its second annual observance of "National Environmental Crimes Prevention Week" -- a week intended to educate the public on the seriousness of environmental criminal activity and to increase the public's awareness of warning signs.
   The annual observance is sponsored by the Regional Environmental Enforcement Associations, which is made up of state environmental regulatory agencies, attorneys general offices, law enforcement agencies and local prosecutor organizations in the United States and Canada.
   The regional enforcement groups focus on middle school students -- the next generation of environmental advocates and enforcers -- and educate them about environmental crime prevention, according to the EPA.