New EPA soot rules could be tough on some Georgia areas

Metro Atlanta and three other areas in Georgia could find it harder to comply with federal air quality standards because of new, tighter requirements issued Friday, but it’s too early to tell, state environmental officials said.

This means some new types of heavy industry, including fossil fuel power plants and food processing plants, could continue to face more stringent environmental permitting if they want to operate in those regions — metro Atlanta, Rome, Macon and parts of the state near Chattanooga, Tenn. Utilities that run coal-fired plants, already the target of other federal environmental standards, could face even more pressure within their community to close or retrofit them, a price that would be borne by consumers.

Environmental advocates praised the new standards, saying they will reduce the amount of deadly pollutants in the air. But utility companies saw those benefits as minimal in comparison with the additional costs that will be passed on to their ratepayers.

The standards issued Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deal with fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot, which comes from power plants, oil refineries, diesel trucks and buses.

Soot can settle deep into the lungs and the circulatory system, according to the American Lung Association. Public health and environmental advocates say soot is among the deadliest contaminants released into the air.

“Today’s announcement by President (Barack) Obama and EPA will mean less deadly pollution in our air, and that should make all Georgians breathe a little easier,” Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia said in a statement.

But Steve Higginbottom, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Southern Co., called the regulation “overreaching” and said it “will hurt economic growth by jeopardizing jobs and burdening hardworking American families with increased energy costs.”

Southern Co. could not put a price on how much compliance with the soot regulation would cost the utilities giant, but it says to comply with other requirements to curb mercury, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides could cost it and its utilities, including Georgia Power, $13 billion to $18 billion through 2020.

The EPA estimated the reduced soot will save the nation’s health care system $4 billion to $9 billion per year by reducing a range of ailments from heart attacks to childhood asthma. By contrast, the agency said companies would pay in all between $53 million and $350 million per year to comply with the new standards.

Scott Segal, a Washington-based lobbyist for a group of utility companies that includes Southern, scoffed at the compliance estimate, which he said EPA serially underestimates.

“It’s not a good day for American consumers, for job creation and for economic recovery, all at very little additional environmental or public health benefit,” Segal said.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to revise standards for soot every five years. Friday was the agency’s court-ordered deadline to finalize the updated rule, which had not been changed since 1997. The agency established a maximum annual average of 12 micrograms of soot per cubic meter, a 20 percent decrease from the former standard of 15 micrograms.

Progress has been made in the four Georgia metro areas that were deemed out of compliance under the former standard in 2005. State environmental officials have asked the EPA for another review of those areas, where soot problems are caused by a combination of high traffic and emissions from coal-powered utility plants. Those requests are pending.

The state, including those four metro areas, will come under review again under the new standard. The state is allowed one year to submit air quality data, and the EPA has at least two years to review it. Then states have until 2018 to submit their plans to meet the new standards and until 2020 to comply.

Jac Capp, chief of the Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection branch, said those four metro areas are above the EPA’s new standard released Friday. That could change by 2015.

“There’s a chance for the levels [of pollutants] to go down,” Capp said. “They are trending down.”

In the mid- to late 1990s, when metro Atlanta struggled to meet air quality standards that mostly related to ozone, the region was ineligible to participated in some federally funded transportation projects.

This is no longer the case, Capp said, as the region is growing more slowly and automobiles have become cleaner.

The rule comes one month before Georgia Power releases its highly anticipated long-term energy plan. The bulky document will contain the utility’s plan for getting electricity for the next 20 years and include proposals for complying with the EPA’s rules. That could include closing coal-fired units, changing them to run on natural gas or adding pollution controls.

Southern’s utilities, including Georgia Power, gradually have reduced the amount of electricity they get from coal from pl70 percent five years ago to 47 percent now. Still, three of Southern’s coal-fired plants top the list of the nation’s largest contributors to global greenhouse gases, according to EPA data from 2010.

And a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists identified the utility as having the largest number of coal plants that should be closed instead of retrofitted with pollution controls because it’s too expensive to do so. This is partly because some of Southern’s coal units are so old, having been built in the 1960s, long before pollution controls were created.

Southern has spent millions of dollars in Washington to stave off some of the EPA’s stricter requirements and has had some success. For example, the federal rule designed to cut downwind pollution by reducing the amount of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides coming from power plants was overturned by a federal appeals court.

This allows utilities to continue to operate coal-fired plants without adding pollution controls.

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