Something extraordinary took place around August 15, 2003. In the valleys of Pennsylvania, the air was substantially cleaner than it had been just 24 hours earlier. Sulfur dioxide levels decreased by more than 90 percent, smog (ground-level ozone) levels about 50 percent, and light scattered by particles (a standard measure of soot and other pollutant particles in the atmosphere) by 70 percent. Atmospheric visibility — how far the naked eye can see — increased by over 20 miles, more than the distance from New Haven to Bridgeport, and about the distance from New Haven to Long Island.
Those of you in the Northeast, Midwest, or Canada around that time may remember that August 14, 2003 witnessed one of the largest blackouts in U.S. history. From Connecticut west to Michigan and south through parts of New Jersey, millions of people lost power. As the grid overloaded, as the outage snowballed, dozens of power plants tripped safety breakers and shut down.
The pollution statistics I have cited were published last June in the journal Geophysical Research Letters by a team from the University of Maryland. The researchers used the blackout as a unique opportunity to study the effects of predominantly coal-fired Ohio and Pennsylvania power plants on atmospheric air pollution. Standard EPA air pollution models place power plant contributions of sulfur dioxide at around 70 percent and particulate pollution at around 8 percent; the actual reductions observed with the power plants off-line dramatically exceeds those estimates.
But what is particularly remarkable about the study is that it looked not at the air quality in the immediate vicinity of the power plants, but instead hundreds of miles downwind. The comparative data was taken not only from the same site one year prior, but also from data taken earlier in the morning in Western Maryland and Northern Virginia — sites downwind of fully operational coal power facilities. The study conclusively shows the long-range effects of power plants pollution, and also effectively shows the extent to which power plants contribute to the mediocre quality of our air.
Given the real-world findings — infinitely more valuable than any computer pollution model — it would make sense to address the environmental nightmare of coal power. According to Clean the Air, fine particle emissions — which are caused by a combination of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and which were reduced by 70 percent during the blackout — are responsible for over 30,000 premature deaths each year. Additionally, particulate pollution from coal power plants causes an estimated 20,000 additional hospital visits, 7,000 emergency room visits, 18,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 600,000 asthma attacks, and 5 million sick days.
In 2001, before the Maryland study, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed significant reductions in power plant particulate-related emissions. The EPA’s proposal would have, by 2020, reduced healthcare costs by $154 billion annually at a compliance cost of $10 billion. The Bush administration countered with its Clear Skies Initiative, which would have reduced emissions far less than the EPA’s proposal. Clear Skies would have brought healthcare costs down by $93 billion at a cost to polluters of $6.5 billion. Doing the math, Clear Skies costs healthcare companies and the public $61 billion more than the EPA’s proposal in exchange for a $3.5 billion rebate (over the EPA proposal) to polluters. While the Clear Skies Initiative is a good first step, the EPA’s proposal is not unreasonable when one considers the costs and benefits involved.
The healthcare costs and death toll numbers are based on power plant particulate contribution at only 8 percent — far below the 70 percent found in the Maryland study; deaths, sick days, and healthcare costs as a result of coal power are far in excess of even Clean the Air’s estimates.
CSI, inadequate before the new study, has become in this light an absolutely irresponsible piece of environmental legislation which unnecessarily hands a small rebate to polluters at huge economic expense to the healthcare companies and employers (who lose millions of employee days annually) as well as great personal cost to the general public. The blackout study demands that we adopt the EPA’s 2001 proposal, and it suggests that we seek an even more stringent alternative.
L. David Peters is a senior in Davenport College.