Pollution from power plants causes the premature deaths of 23,600 Americans each year, according to an analysis prepared by a consulting company that uses the same data and methodology in its work for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The report, commissioned by the environmental coalition Clear the Air, also documented for the first time the total number of lung cancer deaths -- 2,800 -- and nonfatal heart attacks -- 38,200 -- linked to power plant pollution each year, as well as comparing the gains that would be made under three approaches to reducing power plant emissions. The Bush administration previously estimated the number of premature deaths and health problems that could be avoided under its plan to reduce power plant emissions.
The study represents the latest salvo in the long-running political battle over how best to reduce pollution from coal-fired plants. President Bush's proposal, known as Clear Skies, has stalled in Congress, along with a rival plan.
"It's important to make sure this is an issue that doesn't get lost in the shuffle," said Angela Ledford, Clear the Air's director. "The dirty secret is instead of cleaning up power plants, the Bush administration has allowed polluters to rewrite clean-air rules." The group hired the Massachusetts-based consulting firm Abt Associates, which does similar work for the EPA, to conduct the analysis.
The report came out the same day that University of Maryland researchers released a study that found "skies were dramatically bluer and the air was much healthier during the August 2003 blackout that hit the East Coast of the United States," when scores of power plants shut down. Twenty-four hours later, scientists measured a 90 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and a 50 percent drop in smog in areas downwind of the plants.
Administration and power industry officials dismissed the Clear the Air report, calling it politically motivated and skewed.
"There's a lot more political science in this report than environmental science," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents power companies. "It's full of crude methodological assumptions."
James L. Connaughton, the White House environmental chief, said the administration is pursuing a broad approach that would clean the air through cuts in both power plant pollution and diesel vehicle emissions. This approach, he said, would meet the standards first outlined by President Bill Clinton in 1997, while preserving economic growth.
"We have a more comprehensive strategy to get the environmental reductions we need to meet the tough new health-based air quality standards that the president has committed the nation to meeting. If we pursue a power-plant-only approach, it would have a dramatic impact on electricity prices for consumers and would lead to a significant loss of jobs," he said.
Last year the White House unveiled its plan to reduce levels of three pollutants -- nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and mercury -- from power plants. Its proposal would set a cap for all three that would take full effect in 2018, and would establish a system in which plants with lower emissions could trade pollution credits to dirtier plants.
Sens. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have written a bill that would set stricter limits on all three pollutants, as well as on carbon dioxide emissions, by 2009. According to Clear the Air's report, this proposal would save 22,000 lives a year.
"This new report, using EPA models and data, brings into ever sharper focus the death and damage being caused by old, dirty power plants," Jeffords said yesterday. "Rather than move forward on legislation to make our air cleaner, we have spent the last 31/2 years trying to prevent the Bush administration from weakening clean-air standards. It's a real shame."
Republicans on Capitol Hill and the administration said their critics were ignoring the dramatic pollution cuts the Bush plan would achieve over the next six years. According to the EPA, by 2010 reductions in fine particle and ozone levels would prevent 7,800 premature deaths and yield $55 billion a year in health and visibility benefits nationwide.
By 2018, the Bush plan would reduce power plant emissions by 70 percent. A Republican staffer on the Environment and Public Works Committee described it as "the most aggressive air pollution initiative ever by an American president."
Segal, at the industry association, said the amount of particulate matter in the air -- hazardous contaminants that come from power plant smoke -- dropped 75 percent between 1970 and 1999. EPA had not used official forecasts to link individual power plants to pollution, he said, because databases "are not designed to yield those types of results."
But Conrad Schneider, senior policy adviser for Clear the Air, accused Segal of "just trying to change the subject." If the Clean Air Act that is law were fully implemented, he said, it would save 4,000 more lives annually than the president's plan.
It remains unclear whether Bush's Clear Skies plan, which was first outlined in early 2002, will make it into law. Both parties have been unwilling to broker a compromise on the issue in an election year.
Environment and Public Works Committee spokesman Will Hart said the issue "will be the top air quality bill, if not the top bill, for Environment and Public Works Committee when we come back next year."