Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

EDITORIAL >> A pass for polluters

Our nomination for the least surprising news of the week is the recommendation of the director of the state Department of Environmental Quality that the coal-burning utilities in Arkansas be given a pass on reducing their air poisoning by Oct. 15, 2013. The least surprising news next week will be the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission’s decision to do exactly that.

That is, after all, what the utilities want and there is little record of Arkansas state regulatory agencies disappointing them. The quality of Arkansas air is a secondary matter.

The immediate effect of director Teresa Marks’ recommendation and the commission’s rubber-stamp of her recommendation next week is that Entergy Corp. and the other owners of the White Bluff coal-powered generating plant south of us will not have to install scrubbers at the plant to reduce its emission of sulphur and nitrogen oxides — not for a long while anyway. The White Bluff plant produces more sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — the chief agents that cause acid rain — than the other Arkansas generating plants combined: about 38 billion tons a year of sulphur dioxide and 22 billion tons of nitrogen oxide.

The utilities did not want to install scrubbers when the plant was built in the 1970s and state regulators said that was fine.

Elsewhere around the country, owing to the rising concern about acid rain on forests and streams, states required scrubbers.

Acid rain declined across the East the last quarter century.

Two years ago, the Environ-mental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush created a new air rule requiring coal plants built in the 1960s and 1970s to be equipped with scrubbers, which remove the sulphur from the exhaust-flue gases of coal and oil plants. The Arkansas pollution agency set Oct. 15, 2013 as the deadline for Arkansas coal plants to comply.

Entergy and the other owners of White Bluff — three city utilities and the electric cooperatives — wanted to install the cleaner at a cost of some $780 million because the alternative was to shut the plant down and build a cleaner one or buy power from a cleaner supplier of electricity like the big gas-powered generating plant at El Dorado.

But the utilities realized the uncertainty at the federal level. The new tougher EPA standards or Congress may write even tougher standards that apply to the carbon gases that produce global warming as well as sulphur and nitrogen. Why clean the air until you absolutely have to and you know exactly the least that you will have to do? Waiving the 2013 deadline means the new deadline will be five years after the EPA eventually approves Arkansas’ plan to comply with the air rules.

It’s best to be philosophical about our obsequious regulatory agencies. The acid hasn’t killed us yet. What’s another five or six years? —E.D.