The Environmental Protection Agency enacted a broad new rule yesterday aimed at significantly reducing levels of health-damaging ozone and atmospheric soot caused by emissions from power plants in eastern and midwestern states.
The long-awaited Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) -- viewed as the most substantial tightening of air quality standards since the Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990 -- is expected to save thousands of lives each year and prevent the loss of millions of workdays missed annually because of pollution-related heart attacks, asthma and other health problems.
The rule, to be phased in over the next decade, sets limits for the release of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power-plant smokestacks in 28 states and the District. To meet the goals, many plants will have to install new scrubbers and other emissions-capturing equipment.
Plants that cannot meet their deadlines will be allowed to buy credits from those that are ahead of schedule -- an approach that the industry and environmentalists alike had sought as a way to achieve cost-effective regional reductions.
"The action we are taking will require all 28 states to be good neighbors, helping states downwind by controlling airborne emissions at their source," said EPA Acting Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, whom President Bush has nominated to head the agency.
The District and its surroundings are among the dirtier regions of the country, but 70 percent of the pollution on the worst summer days arrives from coal-fired power plants and heavy industry farther west. The new rule is expected to produce gradual improvement, but meeting the new standards will be difficult without further measures, including reducing pollution from vehicles, officials have said.
Nitrogen oxides react with sunlight in warm air to make ground-level ozone, also known as smog, which causes respiratory problems and damages crops. Sulfur dioxide makes acid rain, which has been wreaking environmental havoc in the East for many years. Both pollutants are key contributors to fine particulate soot, which causes a variety of respiratory ailments and contributes to the haze that has increasingly marred views in some of the nation's most pristine areas.
Under the rule, sulfur dioxide pollution is expected to decline by 73 percent over the next decade, compared with 2003 levels, EPA officials said. Oxides of nitrogen are expected to drop by 61 percent.
All told, the EPA calculated, the rule will prevent 17,000 premature deaths; 1.7 million lost workdays; 500,000 lost school days; 22,000 non-fatal heart attacks; and 12,300 hospital admissions annually by 2015.
Yesterday's action ends years of efforts to deal with the fact that many eastern states have been unable to meet Clean Air Act standards because of emissions from power plants located in states upwind. The EPA determined last year that 160 million people in 450 counties in 32 states were living in areas that were out of compliance for airborne particulates and smog.
Officials have said they will release a rule next week restricting mercury, the other major power plant pollutant. That rule is considered to be far more controversial and likely to be challenged in court.
The CAIR and mercury rules, which had been languishing at the EPA, rose to sudden prominence Wednesday when a congressional committee did not advance the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" initiative. The legislation -- which Bush had argued was superior to yesterday's administrative action, in part because it was less likely to get hung up in a tangle of lawsuits -- was widely disparaged by environmental groups as a fundamental weakening of the Clean Air Act.
By contrast, several environmental groups applauded CAIR.
"EPA's action is a big breath of fresh air for the millions of Americans across the eastern U.S. suffering from unhealthy particulate and smog pollution," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense.