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Great Lakes Article:

Illinois, 4 others seek own coal rules
Bush's air plan too slow, they say
By Michael Hawthorne and Jennifer Skalka
Chicago Tribune
Published February 15th, 2005

Illinois and four other Midwestern states are considering new rules that would require coal-fired power plants to dramatically curb air pollution linked to lung damage, heart disease and respiratory ailments.

Aimed at the region's biggest polluters, the proposal would hold coal plants to stricter emissions standards than the Bush administration is calling for under its Clear Skies legislation, a revision of the Clean Air Act that a Senate committee is scheduled to consider Wednesday.

Aging coal plants in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin--which account for about a quarter of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide released by the nation's power plants--also would have to meet earlier deadlines for cleaning their smokestacks.

It is far from certain that the five states will act on their own. But the region's environmental regulators have concluded that more aggressive standards for coal plants are the quickest and most cost-effective option to clear the air of pollution that can trigger a variety of health problems and take years off lives.

If adopted by each of the states, the regional endeavor could require most of the coal plants in Illinois to install expensive pollution controls. The goal would be fewer days when the urban Midwest is blanketed with smog, haze and lung-damaging soot.

Air pollution is so bad on some days in the Chicago area that state officials advise people to limit outdoor activities. However, it is unclear whether governors and lawmakers are willing to take on an industry accustomed to getting its way in state capitals.

Pressure from utilities led Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration last fall to abandon a proposal that would have applied only to Illinois coal plants. At the time, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said making state rules stricter than federal standards would drive up electric rates and make the state's power supply less reliable.

During his State of the State address earlier this month, Blagojevich said developing a regional approach is one of his top priorities as he prepares to lead a group of Midwestern governors.

"We need to reduce emissions that come from old coal-fired plants," Blagojevich said. "If we work together, we can protect jobs and the environment."

Illinois officials said they would prefer a national strategy to reduce air pollution, but they don't think the Bush administration's proposals go far enough or fast enough.

A report prepared for the region's environmental regulators suggests two potential standards for emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, byproducts of coal combustion that help create smog and acid rain and form tiny particles of harmful pollution in the atmosphere.

One standard would be based on commercially available pollution controls for older plants and another on limits set for a handful of new coal plants going up across the country.

Like the Bush administration's proposals, the regional approach would rely on a trading scheme where individual utilities could buy the right to emit pollutants as long as overall pollution levels remained below a certain limit. But the limits set by the states would likely be lower.

Neither the national nor regional proposals addresses carbon dioxide emissions, which are on the rise from power plants and are linked to global warming.

If Illinois' coal plants were required to meet the suggested regional standard for sulfur dioxide, emissions would need to be about three to four times less than the Bush administration's proposals envision by the end of the next decade.

"We might not have to go that far," said Laurel Kroack, acting chief of the Illinois EPA air bureau. "But we agree if we are going to be effective, we are going to need a regional approach."

Illinois and other Midwestern states already are requiring steeper reductions in smog-forming nitrogen oxides than the federal government now requires. The new regional plan would set the limit even lower.

"When you put the science on paper and see we what we need to do to protect health in the Chicago area, it's clear we need to do more about power plants," said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Clean Air Program. "The question is whether there is enough political will to do it."

Ohio, for instance, joined utilities in fighting tougher federal smog and soot standards during the 1990s. Many utility executives have said they favor the Bush administration's proposals, which give power plants more time to comply.

"We prefer a national strategy," said James Monk, president of the Illinois Energy Association, a trade group of the state's investor-owned utilities.

Attempts to get the Clear Skies bill through Congress failed in 2002 and 2003. Bolstered by his reelection and a Republican majority in the House and Senate, the president is pushing the measure again.

"We see this as a great step forward," said Bill Wehrum, a top U.S. EPA official working on the proposal. "It recognizes what we think people can reasonably do."

Critics note the EPA's own analysts have determined that enforcing the existing Clean Air Act could reduce emissions faster than the administration's proposed changes.

And while the administration says its bill would reduce power plant emissions by 70 percent by 2018, another EPA analysis estimates that goal would not be met for another eight years beyond that.

"My estimation right now is that it's a bad deal for Illinois," said U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is to consider the Clear Skies bill Wednesday.

As of Monday, the committee still was deadlocked on the legislation.

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