Consolidation Coal Co. formally petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday to immediately relax the national standard controlling sulfur dioxide.
An invisible gas which spews from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, sulfur dioxide causes lung disease, corrodes buildings and damages crops, according to the EPA.
The coal company said, however, that the federal government has "blatantly misrepresented the facts" in claiming that sulfur dioxide causes deaths. The standard could be relaxed 100 percent -- from 80 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 160 micrograms -- without damaging health, it said.
Consolidation's petition represents a new front in a broad industry attack being mounted this year against the federal government's effort to clamp down on air pollution.
Sulfur dioxide is the subject of one of five national air pollution standards which Congress said should be reviewed by 1980. Also under serious challenge, especially by the oil industry, is the smog standard. Utility companies are fighting rules requiring expensive smokestack equipment to remove sulfur.
However, William Poundstone, executive vice president of Consolidation, said "we don't think we can wait until 1980. We need an immediate answer. Congress has done a classic job of sidestepping the issue so far. If EPA doesn't respond, there is the possibility of legal action."
Poundstone said his petition is based on a re-examination of data in an air pollution study by Lester Lave and Eugene Seskin. Excess deaths attributed to coal burning were more influenced by other factors such as age, race and the use of air-conditioning, Poundstone said.
Consolidation Chairman R.E. Samples said his firm decided to challenge the standard because it has lost more than $160 million worth of business a year in high-sulfur coal sales. Midwestern utilities started switching to low sulfur coal as the EPA began to enforce the sulfur standard in the last three years.
The standard has caused Consolidation to lay off more than 1,200 employes, mainly in Ohio mines, Samples said. The standard is inflationary because utilities must pay more for lowsulfur coal and pass the costs on to consumers, he added.
One company's loss, however, is another's gain. Samples said the National Coal Association, the industry trade group, has not yet joined in the petition because "some members might want to sell low-sulfur coal regardless of the cost to consumers."
Although Consolidation, which is owned by Continental Oil Co., has vast reserves of low-sulfur western coal, Samples said it takes seven years to open a new mine "and we've been continuously hampered by government surface-mining regulations."
Ironically, the EPA is considering power plant regulations which would end the bias against high-sulfur coal. The rules, under challenge by utilities and White House inflation fighters, would require all plants to put expensive scrubbers on their smokestacks regardless of their coal's sulfur content. Thus, there would be no reason for eastern and midwestern utilities to transport expensive low-sulfur coal from the West, which they now do to avoid buying scrubber equipment.
However, Samples said he opposed such rules because they would further increase the cost of electricity.
Despite the loss of business, Samples stressed that Consolidation, the nation's largest coal company in sales, expects a financially good year. "Don't get the idea we're in financial distress. This isn't a cry of pain," he said.