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The Air Up There

Environmental groups are fighting to force industry and the government to uphold pollution standards.

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Air-quality reports have become a regular feature of local television news: warnings from the Shelby County Health Department to the young, sick, and elderly that our air simply isn't safe to breathe.

The threat is primarily from ozone, a pollutant exacerbated by the heat and humidity so common during Memphis summers. About one-third of the pollution problem comes from the region's power plants, which have been harshly criticized by environmental groups for not doing enough to reduce emissions.

Stricter pollution guidelines were established in 1997, but power-industry lawsuits and the Environmental Protection Agency's foot-dragging have delayed enforcement of the standards. The delay will push 59 Southeastern cities -- with 23 million residents -- into noncompliance, says a representative from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), an East Tennessee-based environmental group that has filed an intent to sue the EPA.

"The eight-hour ozone standard [that was established] to protect human health in 1997 puts many more areas in non-attainment," says SACE spokesperson Ulla Reeves. "The power industry has been fighting it, but recently, the courts shot down their appeals. Now, we are trying to hold the EPA's feet to the fire to enforce the laws that protect public health and the environment."

Another major air-pollution problem, Reeves says, is the Tennessee Valley Authority's reliance on outdated, dirty coal-fired power plants. While 56 percent of TVA's power comes from coal-burning power plants, those plants produce 93 percent of TVA's nitorgen-dioxide emissions, the pollutant that reacts with sunlight to form ozone.

And sulfer dioxide, the tiny particulate matter that might be more harmful than previously believed, is emitted at twice the levels from coal-burning plants as from new plants.

These old power plants are allowed to slide by the new emissions standards due to a "grandfather clause" that gave power companies the right to operate older plants without installing new technology because they were soon to be retired. Reeves says power companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in these old plants under the guise of routine maintenance without updating their pollution-controls equipment. A lawsuit has been filed, but the case remains in litigation.

"Pollution knows no boundaries. That's why we need a national cleanup," Reeves says. "There are hundreds of grandfathered power plants that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. Industry made the upgrades but didn't install the new technology, resulting in serious pollution problems."

TVA is installing scrubbers at more than half of its coal-burning plants, including Memphis' Allen Steam Plant, but this technology will only be used during peak pollution times, Reeves says. SACE recommends shutting down coal-fired power plants and looking for renewable energy options like solar, wind, and geothermal power. TVA currently derives only 1 percent of its power from renewable sources.

Diane Arnst, technical manager for the pollution-control section of the Shelby County Health Department, says Memphis and Shelby County are in compliance with current ozone standards and the standards SACE is suing to have imposed.

There haven't been any days of dangerous levels of ozone yet this year, Arnst says, but she adds that it's important to warn the public and commends local television stations for their cooperation. Elevated levels of ozone can cause irritated lungs in asthmatics, young people, and the elderly; higher levels can affect everyone. During high-ozone days, the Health Department recommends that pollution-sensitive people stay indoors with the air conditioning running, and that everyone avoid exercising outside between the peak ozone hours of 4 and 7 p.m.

Sulfer dioxide, tiny particles of soot that bypass the lungs' natural defenses, might soon be monitored as closely as ozone, Arnst says, adding that preliminary research shows these particles could trigger heart attacks.

Arnst says the recent improvement in Memphis' air-quality standards is due to a "significant" reduction of emissions from the Allen plant. Two new natural-gas power plants near Lakeland and Arlington are being constructed. Arnst says natural gas is cleaner-burning and provides more power with less environmental impact.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration finally caught up with the rest of the world and issued a report stating that global warming is caused in part by burning fossil fuels. The report detailed how the environment of the United States will be substantially changed in the next few decades -- disruption of snow-fed water supplies, more stifling heat waves, and the permanent disappearance of Rocky Mountain meadows and coastal marshes. However, the administration isn't proposing any major shift in its policy on reducing greenhouse gases.

A report issued last month by several environmental groups, including SACE and the United States Public Interest Research Group, determined that over 860,000 Tennessee children live near coal-fired power plants. These children are exposed to pollutants that cause many health problems, from asthma attacks to neonatal death and slowed neurological development. The authors of the report urge legislation to protect our children from air pollution.

"[The report] shows that our children's health is at stake if we fail to clean up these plants, especially since we have the technology to do it," says Dr. L. Bruce Hill, senior scientist at the Clean Air Task Force and author of the report. "With a plan moving through Congress for a cleaner energy future, now is the time for parents to better understand the risks of air pollution on their children -- and the ultimate cost of delayed action."

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