EPA Takes a “Good Step” for Public Health with Update to Cross-State Air Pollution Rule

More Steps Still Needed to Reduce Smog-Forming Pollution from Coal-Fired Power Plants

March 16, 2021
Sharyn Stein, 202-905-5817, sstein@edf.org

(Washington, D.C. – March 16, 2021) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just took a valuable step toward protecting millions of people in downwind states from the dangerous air pollution that blows across their boundaries from upwind coal-fired power plants. EPA’s action requires reductions in that pollution for this summer’s smog season.

EPA just issued an update to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that will require coal plants in 12 states to reduce their oxides of nitrogen (NOx) pollution by improving the operation of NOx pollution controls that are already in place and by upgrading NOx pollution controls. NOx is a major component of ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog, and contributes heavily to downwind states’ inability to meet an EPA health-based smog standard set in 2008. Smog exacerbates lung conditions like asthma and is linked to a wide array of serious heart and lung diseases as well as to premature deaths. It’s especially dangerous for children, the elderly, people who work outdoors, and low-income communities or communities of color.

“Millions of people across the Eastern U.S. suffer because of the coal plant pollution that blows into their communities from neighboring states. The update to the Cross State Air Pollution Rule is a common sense step to help them,” said EDF senior attorney Graham McCahan. “We can do much more, though. We urge EPA to build on this foundation and strengthen smog protections for all Americans who live near coal plants or in downwind states.”

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was created under the “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act. It reduces sulfur dioxide and NOx pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants across the Eastern U.S. That pollution, and the resulting soot and smog, drift across state borders and contribute to dangerous, sometimes lethal, levels of pollution in 22 downwind states.

EPA issued the update in response to a court order requiring the agency to strengthen protections for the downwind states. The update will require that coal units in 12 states – Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia – use the modern, effective pollution controls that they have already installed, as well as update their pollution controls. Coal-fired power plants that have pollution controls sometimes don’t operate them, or don’t use them to full capacity.

The update will require those plants to begin reducing pollution immediately after the rule becomes legally effective – 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register. That means downwind states will see less pollution during this year’s summer smog season. It is ultimately expected to reduce NOx pollution from those plants by 19 percent over 2019 levels, and is expected to provide an estimated $2.8 billion in health and environmental benefits.

However, more than one-third of all coal plants in the Eastern U.S. have not yet installed modern pollution controls for NOx, and will not be covered by the update. EPA will need to take further action to protect Americans from the more than 250,000 tons of NOx, and more than 300 million tons of climate pollution, those plants emitted in 2018.

The update will help meet the Clean Air Act’s 2008 national ozone standard. However our nation’s health-based standard for ozone was updated and made more protective in 2015. EPA will need to swiftly require additional pollution reductions for NOx from coal plants so we can ensure our air quality meets the vital 2015 health standard.

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