Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Region's air exceeding new U.S. limits for soot



By James Pilcher
Enquirer staff writer

Most of Greater Cincinnati fails to meet a new air pollution standard curbing particulate matter, or microscopic soot.

A preliminary list released late Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency starts a process that could lead to tighter pollution controls throughout the nation and the region. The controls could include stricter emission limits on coal-burning power plants, which in turn could lead to higher electric rates.

The EPA list included the Kentucky counties of Boone, Campbell and Kenton, while parts of Dearborn County in Indiana also were ruled out of compliance. But the two states did not put those areas on the list, meaning they disagree with the findings and could fight them.

In Ohio, Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties were on the list. More than a third of the state's 88 counties fail to meet the new standard.

The "soot," which is regulated down to particles as small as 2.5 microns, is linked to many breathing difficulties. It annually causes 15,000 premature deaths, 95,000 cases of chronic or acute bronchitis, and thousands of hospital admissions because of respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses, EPA says.

Kentucky officials did not return phone messages for comment left late Tuesday. But state environmental officials have indicated previously they would fight such a ruling.

Indiana officials also did not return phone calls.

States have until Sept. 1 to justify why counties should not be included on the final list, which will be released in November. Once the final list is released, states have three years to come up with a plan to meet the new standard.

Lona Brewer, program planning and administration branch manager for Kentucky's division of air quality, said that the new standard may be more difficult to meet than existing but toughening standards for other substances such as ozone, another air pollutant.

"We just don't know as much about it," she said in an interview last month, just before the list was originally scheduled for release.

Heidi Griesmer, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said the agency wasn't surprised so many counties failed the soot standard. It put the four local counties on the list, agreeing with the federal assessment.

Ohio is evaluating its options, Griesmer said, saying, "controls on power plants will be part of the mix."

Dying young

A report issued earlier this month by a U.S. EPA consultant said Ohio is 10th worst in the nation when it comes to people suffering from heart attacks and premature death associated to air pollution.

The report also found that by 2010, Greater Cincinnati will see 319 premature deaths a year due to pollution, and that the air in Southwest Ohio is the worst in the state.

Ohio ranked second worst nationally in deaths caused by power plant emissions, according to the report, which was disputed by energy company representatives.

Higher rates

Cinergy spokesman Steve Brash said the company has spent $1.5 billion on air control measures since the existing version of the Clean Air Act was passed in 1990, and the new measures that could be needed to help meet the new soot levels could cost another $1.2 billion through 2008.

"It would definitely mean higher rates," he said.

States are already required to meet certain standards for ozone, an odorless, colorless gas that is a known lung irritant. That gas is created mainly in summer months when certain pollutants from vehicle and industrial emissions mix with sunlight. Those standards were toughened earlier this year.

But particulate matter is released year-round, compounding the problem.

The new standards were finalized in 1997, but are just now being enacted due to lengthy litigation. The EPA is in the process of proposing new controls on power plants, as well as on diesel emissions, which it says will help curb soot nationally.

Many environmental groups say the new rules actually weaken existing clean air provisions.

"The real story is that on the one hand, the EPA is warning Greater Cincinnati residents that the air is unsafe, and yet at the same time, the Bush Administration is weakening the Clean Air Act," said Glen Brand, the national Sierra Club's Cincinnati-based Midwest regional representative.

Officials with the air quality division of Hamilton County's Department of Environmental Services, which measures air quality throughout the region, did not return phone calls late Tuesday.

Not far above

A 2003 report on the agency's Web site indicated that Hamilton County monitoring stations were not too far above the new EPA limit for soot.

And a recent report submitted by Kentucky officials to a newly created regional air quality coalition indicated that all three Northern Kentucky counties were under the limit. But the report said that the Greater Cincinnati region as a whole could affect those three counties.

Staff writer Matt Leingang contributed, as did the Associated Press.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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