Waiting to inhale
New England has spent the better part of a decade trying to clean up the
region's dirtiest power plants. But the Bush administration is poised to erase
by Sam Smith
On a warm summer day in New England, with the wind pushing sailboats around the
bay, you can sit out on your front porch, sip a nice glass of lemonade, and
inhale toxic levels of pollutants from power plants in Ohio.
Mmmm, sulfur dioxide.
The buzz-killing air quality results from a conspiracy between Mother Nature's
prevalent wind patterns and the federal government's shortsighted air
regulations: as wind pushes across the Midwest and Southeast, it picks up
pollution from "grandfathered" coal- and oil-burning power plants -- plants
built before the 1977 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, which were granted
a free pass from its emissions standards. The grandfather provision was based
on the notion that those plants were so old they would probably be mothballed
or upgraded -- thus forcing them to meet stiffer pollution regulations --
within five years or so. With their days presumably numbered, it was reasoned
that the plants shouldn't be saddled with the cost of upgrading emission
controls, which could have cost millions of dollars. But many of those old
plants are still here, defying the predictions of lawmakers.
The pollution from grandfathered plants contributes to some of New England's
most pressing environmental concerns: acid rain, global warming, and toxic
mercury levels in rivers and ponds are all exacerbated by power-plant
emissions. And though some experts estimate that about 40 percent of the
region's air pollution comes from upwind plants, we can't just point a finger
in the general direction of Michigan and wipe our hands clean.
In May 2000, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study titled
"Estimated Public Health Impacts of Criteria Pollutant Air Emissions from the
Salem Harbor and Brayton Point Power Plants," a two-year examination of
pollution from local grandfathered power plants. What it found was disturbing.
Two of Massachusetts's dirtiest coal- and oil-burning plants, Salem Harbor and
Brayton Point, released enough toxins to cause 161 premature deaths, 1710
emergency-room visits, and 43,300 asthma attacks each year throughout New
England. And that's just two plants. There are 16 grandfathered plants in the
region: six in Massachusetts, six in Connecticut, three in New Hampshire, and
one in Maine. Rhode Island hosts none of the bellowing monsters, but Brayton
Point, the dirtiest plant in New England, sits right on its border.
There was a brighter side to this grimy story: New England's progress toward
regulating dirty power plants, particularly the tough new emissions standards
for Massachusetts's grandfathered plants that Governor Jane Swift announced in
April. But now environmentalists and state lawmakers are bracing for a possible
major setback to their clean-up efforts: the Bush administration's energy plan,
released on May 17. Of paramount concern are its recommendations for reviewing
the legitimacy of lawsuits brought by the state of New York against
grandfathered plants in the Midwest and Southeast. The suits allege that these
plants violated Clean Air Act regulations by upgrading their production
capacity without upgrading their emission controls -- regulations also up for
review under the Bush energy plan, which wants them evaluated with an eye
toward their negative impact on domestic energy production. These initiatives
could yank the rug out from under efforts to clean up New England, because no
matter how clean power plants are here, dirty plants outside our borders can
still ruin our air.
In other words, though state-level action is great as far as it goes, blanket
federal action offers the only route to real progress. The Bush energy proposal
may have environmental and state leaders in New England holding their breath,
but not in anticipation of cleaner air.
IF THIS were a Hollywood movie, New England would be personified by a busty
Julia Roberts crusading against -- well, against PG&E, the corporate
villain in Erin Brockovich and the owner of the Salem Harbor and Brayton
Point power plants.
"Every major clean-air battle has really started in New England," says Rob
Sargent of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG).
In April, Governor Jane Swift announced that grandfathered plants in
Massachusetts would finally have to curb their emissions of sulfur dioxide,
nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide. These four pollutants pack a
serious punch: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide soot caused the deaths and
health problems referenced in the Harvard study; mercury causes birth defects
and brain damage; and carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas.
The other New England states don't match Massachusetts's new standards, but all
are ahead of the national curve. Connecticut has its own set of regulations,
which target sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. New Hampshire and Maine are
busy crafting similar rules. Maine reached an agreement earlier this month with
Wyman Station, the grandfathered oil-burning plant near Portland, to reduce
emissions. And US Representative Tom Allen (D-Maine) has sponsored the Clean
Power Act of 2001, which would close the grandfather loophole entirely.
Meanwhile, states outside the Northeast have been moving in the same direction.
Although Massachusetts is the first state to regulate the four major toxins
from power plants, similar legislation is pending in Illinois and North
Carolina. Texas has already started reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide
emissions. And it was New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer who filed the
suit against 17 grandfathered plants in 1999.
It is this legal action -- which Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey
joined (though the Garden State's involvement in the suit is coming back to
haunt former New Jersey governor and current EPA administrator Christie Todd
Whitman) -- that the Bush energy plan recommends reviewing. The
administration's stance signals that the suits could be quashed if they don't
meet the president's vision of a hassle-free regulatory process for power
The review is "the biggest threat to New England right now," says Frank
O'Donnell, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Clean Air Trust, a
watchdog group formed in 1995 by former senators Edmund Muskie of Maine and
Robert Stafford of Vermont. "This administration is considering granting
immunity to big coal-fired plants in the Midwest and Southeast that violated
the Clean Air Act. Even if, say, Massachusetts goes forward with plans to clean
up its plants, this would allow big, dirty power companies to continue
polluting and sending pollution to New England."
"One of many reasons why the New England states are working to clean up our
plants," says Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council, Maine's largest
environmental group, "is to strengthen the region's ability to tell upwind
states, `Look, we've done what we can to clean up our plants, and to the extent
to which we continue to have dirty air, we need you to do the same thing.' But
in the ideal world, you wouldn't have different parts of the country telling
others how to act. You would have the federal government providing a level
playing field, requiring power plants everywhere to clean up to the highest
level of emission controls."
After all, when the wind is just right, close to half of New England's smog
comes from the Midwest. State-level action can go only so far without
coordination by the feds. And this, explains Didisheim, has been a guiding
principle in the region.
With Bush reneging on his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,
however, there's little hope that blanket federal regulations are in the
offing. And the proposed loosening of federal environmental standards has
already begun to undermine state-level progress. Marc Violette of the New York
attorney general's office says they had been ready to finalize two out-of-court
settlements with power-plant defendants from the 1999 suit. But now that has
been put on hold, he says. "I think it's safe to say the [two] utilities are
intrigued by the possibility of a new regulatory dynamic in Washington."
A new regulatory dynamic -- plus the billions in subsidies the Bush
administration has promised the coal industry -- affects more than just the
"In terms of legislative success, I'd say the prospects for moving forward are
dim," Representative Allen of Maine acknowledges, saying that he's not
optimistic about the Clean Power Act of 2001 coming to the floor for a vote.
"So I'll keep trying to get more co-sponsors, try to get more press on this,
try to work with outside groups who care about the environment."
BUT IT'S not all doom and gloom for environmentalists. Some foresee a silver
lining to the Bush plan: the potential for backlash.
That potential became real last week. In his May 24 speech announcing his
defection from the Republican Party, Vermont senator James Jeffords listed
"energy and the environment" as an area where his views fundamentally oppose
those of the Bush administration. "Certainly the more people know about the
anti-environmental provisions of Bush's energy plan, the more alarmed they
are," says the Clean Air Trust's O'Donnell. "Some of the outrageous
environmental provisions in the plan I'm sure helped persuade Jeffords to the
leave the party."
And Jeffords's feelings about the Bush energy plan may turn out to be shared in
other parts of the nation. "If you add what's going on in New England to
pending legislation in Illinois and North Carolina, it's starting to be not
just a New England issue," says Conrad Schneider, a Maine representative of the
Clean Air Task Force, a national organization that cleans up power plants.
"It's happening in areas more coal-dependent and with dirtier plants than ours.
Our view is, the momentum is building toward additional states' implementing
Utilities appear to have the same impression. "There's mandatory carbon capping
in the long-term future," John Rowe, chief executive of Chicago utility Exelon
Corporation, told the Wall Street Journal on May 10. With the writing on
the wall, utilities are becoming concerned about the piecemeal approach of a
state-by-state regulatory structure. As the Wall Street Journal
reported, some utilities are working with environmental groups to fashion a
multi-pollutant federal regulation that would mandate cuts in carbon dioxide
emissions, despite Bush's disavowal of such measures.
Meanwhile, the way some New England utilities are retooling their business
models to focus on energy efficiency indicates that they consider conservation
a sound investment rather than a mere "personal virtue," as Vice-President Dick
Cheney derisively characterized it last month.
Connecticut Light & Power, the largest utility in that state, has spent
over $500 million since the 1980s on energy-efficiency programs. According
to CLP's Philip Vece, the company has reduced the peak summer load among its
customers by 450 megawatts -- effectively delaying the need to build another
plant. CLP's efforts demonstrate that reducing power demand through
conservation offers an effective alternative to the Bush administration's plans
to increase supply by building new plants.
"Our environment has been spared thousands of tons of emissions," says Vece.
"And our customers are saving nearly $150 million annually."
According to Conservation Law Foundation figures, combined energy-efficiency
programs among New England utilities have cut 50 million tons of carbon
dioxide emissions from the air and saved customers in the region about
$3 billion since the 1980s.
And depending on how much stock one puts in polls, there's reason to believe
folks don't agree with the direction of Bush's energy policies. According to a
CBS News poll from early April, 61 percent of Americans feel it's more
important to protect the environment than to produce energy, while 65 percent
believe Bush puts energy production above the environment. A Sierra Club poll
conducted by the Mellman Group earlier this month found that by a two-to-one
margin, Americans would rather reduce demand than increase supply to solve an
"This isn't a problem of public opinion," says Representative Allen. "It's all
about the leadership. The Bush administration completely fails to understand
the power of millions of Americans working together to reduce energy
"The Bush administration has complete and utter faith in some
yet-to-be-identified technology for space-based weapons," says MassPIRG's
Sargent. "But they can't fund technology for energy efficiency and renewables,
technology that has been proven and could be viable if [it] got half the
subsidies some of these others get."
Just in research and development subsidies, the coal industry receives upwards
of $100 million a year. Bush has promised about $2 billion more over
the next 10 years. Instead, Allen argues, we should be funding research on
alternative energy. "Can you imagine the change we could make if fuel cells
were available for cars in 10 years and not 20?" he says. "We'd have cars
running off water."
"I'm encouraged that there are at least some of the governors in New England,
and virtually all of the New England delegation in Congress, [who] don't buy
into the Bush plan," says Sargent. "I don't think the US public is buying into
it. I think we're going to see a backlash here and from the rest of the world.
"We have to believe that or it would be very depressing."
Sam Smith is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine. He can be reached