Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cleaning Up Air Pollution?

"Unveiling a historic rule, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced the first national requirement for the nation's coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide and other toxic pollutants." EPA announces historic rule to clean or shut coal-burning power plants McClatchy#storylink=cpy#storylink=cpy

I applaud this action by the EPA. It's necessary and long overdue. But I wonder about the net effect of these regulations on air quality, at least in the Kentucky coalfields where I live.

Electricity rates in Kentucky have gone up dramatically in the past several years. Electricity in eastern Kentucky is entirely generated from coal fired plants, and the price of coal has been rising, as more and more Kentucky coal goes overseas to feed industrial growth in places like China. Also regional utility companies face necessary upgrades to aging infrastructure, whose age and deterioration became all too apparent during the severe December and January storms of the past five years.

Although still among the lowest in the nation, the per kilowatt rate in eastern Kentucky is more than double what it was when we moved into the area 15 years ago. The EPA requirements are necessary, and long over due, and they will create construction and other types of jobs to meet the new requirements, but, they will also raise electricty rates even more.

Here's the catch. This winter, before any new regulations go into effect, I have observed that residents of my rural Kentucky neighborhood are responding to the higher electricity rates by shifting to wood and coal burning stoves for more of their heating. While at least one of my neighbors has always done some heating with wood, this year, they appear to be doing 100 percent of their heating with wood. So 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wood smoke pours from their chimney and fills the neighborhood. Several other chimneys within a quarter mile of me are also chugging out the smoke at rates not observed in previous years. At least one or two of these are burning coal rather than wood. Depending upon atmospheric and wind conditions, my home and yard can be totally engulfed by a thick miasma of asthma inducing smoke.

If electricity rates go up, even more of my neighbors will start using wood and coal -- both things are readily available inexpensively in our rural area -- and the air quality of at least my local region will suffer accordingly.