Air pollution alerts spike as EPA announces new regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new rules today regulating power-plant pollution that crosses state lines.

Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, is holding a press conference at 12:30 to announce a “significant Clean Air Act proposal to protect public health and the environment.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget recently cleared the way for EPA to enact the new power plant rules, which will focus on emissions that cross state lines and that contribute to smog and soot pollution.

“This will be one of the most significant steps EPA can take to clean up the air and improve public health,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch, in an email. “This cleanup plan could literally prevent thousands of premature deaths each year and make it possible for tens of millions of others to breathe easier.”

The rules arrive just as summer smog levels reach new peaks in most of the Eastern United States and parts of California’s valleys.

Unhealthy-air alerts–red alerts in EPA parlance–have been issued today in Charlotte and Hickory, North Carolina, Northern Delaware, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The EPA anticipates orange alerts tomorrow in Camden and Brigatine, New Jersey.

“It’s only the latest episode of dirty-air misery,” O’Donnell said. “Our Clean Air Watch Smog Watch Survey finds that no fewer than 40 states and the District of Columbia have already experienced unhealthful levels of ozone, or smog, this year, through the end of June.”

That compares to 35 states and DC last year.

It sounds like 1975, but it’s 2010, and even though automobile emissions have been cleaned up substantially from the era of daily smog alerts in Los Angeles, pollution continues to billow forth from power plants, some of which are exempted by their age from the Clean Air Act, and from factories.

“It is safe to say that we need more aggressive efforts to purge the air of contaminants that create smog,” O’Donnell said.

The new EPA rules will employ, and are expected to revitalize, existing cap and trade markets for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

The program announced in 2005 by the EPA under President George W. Bush was aimed at making the largest reduction in air pollution in more than a decade. It used existing environmental markets to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides mostly from coal-fired power plants in 28 eastern states.

The plan prompted a flurry of activity in U.S. emissions markets and increased investments by utilities in pollution controls. But a federal appeals court in July 2008 rejected the rule, saying it was fatally flawed, and sent it back to the EPA to rewrite. That caused some utilities to pull back on pollution-control projects, while the thriving market for U.S. emission allowances collapsed and remains in disarray.

via WSJ.com.

The Senate may also consider a much watered-down climate bill this summer that targets power plants, which produce about a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution. Such a bill would leave industrial sources largely unchecked.

And EPA is keeping a close watch on BP’s controlled burns in the Gulf of Mexico, with air-monitoring stations throughout the Gulf Coast. The oil company has removed more than 10 million gallons of oil from the sea by converting it into billowing clouds of black smoke.

So far, those EPA stations are reporting clean air. But that smoke is going somewhere.

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