Ohio’s electric utilities emit more toxic pollution than any others in the nation, according to figures released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The news immediately sparked debate over how harmful the emissions are. But the EPA sidestepped the issue, saying it was merely providing information so local communities and the state could decide what to do with it.
Coal-burning utilities in Ohio released 113.9 million pounds of toxic emissions in 1998, most of it – 95 million pounds – into the air, according to the EPA. That is higher than second-ranked West Virginia (75.8 million pounds total) and third-ranked Pennsylvania (73 million pounds).
The worst offenders in Ohio were Dayton Power & Light Co.’s J.M. Stuart Station in Adams County and FirstEnergy Corp.’s W.H. Sammis Plant in Jefferson County. It could not be immediately determined whether Ohio utilities burned more coal than other states, had poorer pollution controls or were merely reporting higher emissions because of the Ohio EPA’s own record-keeping requirements.
“Coal and oil-fired power plants release toxic heavy metals and acid gases directly into the environment. These gases and metals result in health effects ranging from respiratory irritations to cancer,” said John Stanton, vice president of air programs for the National Environmental Trust.
But Ellen Raines, a spokeswoman for Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., countered that most of the toxic materials counted by the EPA “are very innocuous in nature, particularly when they are emitted in the concentrations they are emitted. For our power plants, the largest numbers are hydrogen fluorides, hydrogen chlorides, and those don’t pose any human health risk whatsoever, particularly when they are released out of (smoke) stacks that are a couple of hundred feet tall and dispersed into the air over a period of 365 days.”
In releasing the utility toxic inventory records for the first time, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner provided fodder for such debate while pointedly avoiding criticism of any state or industry. She and her assistants said they were complying with the Community Right to Know Act, signed by President Clinton in 1997, which ordered that information on toxic releases from a number of industries be given to the public.
“Citizens now have more information than ever at their fingertips to help protect their communities, their health and their children’s health,” said Vice President Al Gore.
Environmentalists criticized the directive, saying it provided information but no enforcement. The administration recently declined to regulate coal waste under solid waste laws, and has until December to decide on controlling toxic air emissions from power plants.
“EPA has the authority to regulate toxic air releases and toxic coal combustion waste. To date, it has failed to do either,” said Casi Cramer, Clean Air Campaign coordinator for the Ohio Environmental Council.
Linda Fee Oros, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said as much as 80 percent of the utility emissions consist of hydrochloric acid. Since the federal government does not restrict its release from power plants, Ohio cannot either, because Ohio law does not allow the state to adopt stricter standards than the federal government, Fee Oros said.
“I don’t think we would characterize Ohio’s situation as bad. I think we would say that we are in compliance with federal regulations,” she said.
Environmentalists say hydrochloric acid from coal combines to form soot and fine particulates that are linked to respiratory problems.
The EPA report noted, however, that the figures on toxic releases alone “are not sufficient to determine exposure or to calculate potential adverse effects on human health and the environment.” Determining risk would depend on the substance’s form, its stability in the environment, the potential for accumulation, level of exposure and other factors.
“You have to keep in mind when looking at this toxics release inventory, that it is strictly about volume, not about toxicity,” said FirstEnergy’s Raines.
“So these numbers look very daunting, but we also burn a lot of coal at FirstEnergy. We burn 40 billion pounds of coal a year. So we have a lot of coal-fired generation. It’s necessary to meet our customers’ demands for electricity.”