A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to cut air pollution that drifts in the wind across states in the eastern half of the United States means South Carolina’s coal-burning power plants must either close or cut the amount of soot and smog they contribute to the airstream.
The rule will save hundreds of lives in South Carolina each year and cut risks to thousands from developing asthma or other lung irritating diseases like bronchitis and emphysema, proponents said.
The rule is designed to keep South Carolina skies – and the skies of states across the eastern half of the country – clear by limiting the amount of harmful emissions produced by coal plants that air currents carry hundreds of miles into neighboring states.
South Carolina and 27 other states must comply with regulations developed by the EPA that will slice the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide released from coal-burning power plants, the court ruled.
The rule, which South Carolina contested, gives the EPA more power to clear the skies in states that are downwind from coal plants by regulating the smog and soot produced by upwind states.
The EPA estimates that cracking down on cross state coal emissions will prevent 970 deaths each year in South Carolina.
Utilities in South Carolina have closed some coal plants and have proactively added equipment to others to capture more of the coal-burning residue that creates smog and soot.
In the Upstate, Duke Energy plans to close its coal-fired Lee Steam Station in Anderson County and replace it with a new natural gas plant. Elsewhere in the state, Santee Cooper has closed two coal units, and South Carolina Electric and Gas has closed one coal station and is converting others to natural gas.
Air from South Carolina smokestacks contributes to air pollution in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, the EPA says.
And South Carolina’s skies are harmed by emissions from 17 states, according to the EPA.
The Upstate, which regularly bumps up against the air quality compliance limits, should benefit from the reduction of soot and smog it inherits from its neighbors, said Dean Hybl, director of Clean Air Upstate.
“While there are emissions that come from the Upstate and go to other places, there are far more emissions and ozone and other things that come from other places to us through Atlanta and Charlotte and even the Tennessee Valley Authority,” Hybl said.
The rule doesn’t release the Upstate from responsibility for its air quality though, Hybl said.
“We have to focus on what we can do locally to lower emissions here,” Hybl said.
Clean Air Upstate is a partnership of utilities, businesses and local governments that works to improve the region’s air through anti-idling campaigns, lawn mower exchanges and educational programs at schools.
The EPA is expected to tighten its emissions attainment next year, which could throw parts of the Upstate into non-attainment, which could impact future economic development, Hybl said.
The ruling was a resounding win for the EPA’s clean air regulations under the Obama administration, said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resource Defense Council.
“The justices sided with EPA on every disputed legal question in the case,” Walke said.
South Carolina and other states had opposed the regulation, known as the Cross State Air Pollution Rule. States argued that they should be allowed to implement their own air pollution control measures rather than a one-size-fits-all EPA rule.
But justices ruled 6-2 that air pollution is much too complex to deal with on a state-by-state basis.
South Carolina’s Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the decision, said Mark Powell, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Utilities in South Carolina now will need to decide whether to retrofit existing coal plants with technology to capture emissions – a costly move – or shift from coal to other energy sources.
One SCE&G unit was closed and other units have been upgraded in recent years, said Eric Boomhower, SCE&G spokesman.
“We have installed hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment on our large coal-fired generating plants in recent years in anticipation of having to comply with emerging regulations,” Boomhower said.
Santee Cooper closed two units in 2012 and has retrofitted its four others with emissions-capture technology, said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper spokeswoman.
“We think that we’ve actually pretty well covered requirements for this as part of the upgrades we’ve made,” Gore said.
Duke plans to close its Lee Steam Station by 2015 and has received approval to open a large natural gas plant on the same site as soon as 2017.
Duke Energy has shuttered 3,800 megawatts of coal plants across the U.S. in recent years and plans to eliminate a total of 6,800 megawatts, said Chad Eaton, federal affairs spokesman for Duke Energy.
The company has invested $7.5 billion in emissions-capturing technology so far at existing coal plants and plans to invest $5 billion-$6 billion more in the next decade, Eaton said.
Eaton said it’s too soon to tell what the court decision means for the implementation of the rule.
The EPA still needs to release a timeline to implement the cross-state rule and companion regulations guiding mercury and other hazardous material emissions, Walke said.
That timeline will likely be contested through the legal process as well, Walke said.
Smog (ground level ozone) and soot (fine particles in the air) can cause heart attacks, asthma, lung irritation, reduced lung function and aggravated bronchitis and emphysema, according to the EPA.
One in three Americans are susceptible to ozone health effects, according to the EPA.
The Southeast comprises a significant number of the states affected by the cross-state air pollution rule, said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“Those of us living in the Southeast can breathe a little easier knowing that EPA can now regulate harmful pollution that drifts down from our neighbors to the north,” Smith said.
The EPA says South Carolina will benefit from emissions reductions in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.