Leader Blues

Friday, November 21, 2008

EDITORIAL >>State among ‘dirty dozen’

Our little state is not deemed worthy of many distinctions, but when it is, we usually wish that it were not. That was the case again this week when Arkansas made the list of the nation’s “dirty dozen” states, those belching the most mercury into the atmosphere.

The coal-fired electricity generating plants at Independence and White Bluff, to our south and north, are among the dirtiest in the land, as measured by the amount of mercury they emit, something more than 1,100 pounds between them last year. Coal-powered plants are the largest source of mercury air pollution, a poison that settles into lakes and streams and makes its way into the food supply and the human body.

Electric companies like Entergy Corp., which operates two of the three coal-burning plants in Arkansas, persuaded Congress when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 not to impose strict controls on existing power plants because cleaner plants would replace them. But the amount of mercury pollution has been growing, not slackening. The Independence plant last year increased its mercury emissions by 16 percent over the previous year.

The report on the dirty dozen by the Environmental Integrity Project caught our attention because we are about to raise mercury emissions — and even more dangerous greenhouse gases — even more. Two weeks ago, the state Department of Environmental Quality gave a combine of power companies an air-quality permit to build a big coal-powered generating plant at McNab in southwest Arkansas near Grassy Lake and the Little River. The state Public Service Commission a year ago signed off on the project, holding that the plant was needed to meet future power needs in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and wouldn’t be an environmental hazard. Texas has outraged the companies by postulating that lots of the environmental costs of the plant could not be passed along to Texans, who will use most of the electricity from the plant when it is finished in 2012 or 2013.

We thought both Arkansas agencies were wrong. The power was not needed in the near future, certainly not in Arkansas, and conservation and other, cleaner generating fuels were better options than a coal plant when the power was needed. The Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that monitors pollution and licenses polluters, concluded that the plant and specifically its mercury emissions would be safely within the tolerable limits established by federal law and rules.

Mercury is removable and perhaps the hotter-burning supercritical technology that will be used at the John W. Turk Jr. plant in Arkansas will clean up the mercury. We will have to keep our fingers crossed.

But for sure it will not remove carbon dioxide, by far the largest cause of climate change. The three coal plants in Arkansas now emit nearly 30 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, and the Turk plant will add another 4 to 6 million tons.

Every molecule will stay in the atmosphere from 50 to 200 years. That is why the state Commission on Global Warming, Audubon Arkansas and other environmental groups have called for a moratorium on coal plants until sequestration technology has been proved to eliminate carbon from atmospheric emissions.

The state agency brushed aside these concerns because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has no standards for CO2. The U. S. Supreme Court said the Bush administration was wrong in not developing carbon standards under the Clean Air Act, and the administration has stalled. The Obama administration clearly will develop those regulations and the owners of Turk hope to have the plant far enough along that it cannot be affected by that development.

We are encouraged by reports that President-elect Barack Obama will appoint Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius to run the EPA.

She is one of several governors, Republican and Democratic, who halted plans for new coal plants in their states because of the deleterious effect on the climate. Clearly, the state government in Arkansas is not going to be a reliable steward of the air and waters of the state — and of the Earth. The new government of the United States may yet act in time. Let us hope.