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New Rules for Power Plants to Achieve to Largest Emission Reductions in a Decade; Major Step Forward in Eliminating ‘Smog’ Days in New England

Release Date: 12/04/2003
Contact Information: David Deegan, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1017

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a proposal to require coal-burning power plants, including seven facilities in New England, to make the steepest emissions cuts in over a decade. The “Interstate Air Quality Rule” will require power plants to upgrade their facilities to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

This announcement is in addition to agency proposals to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. Taken together, these rules will require utilities to spend tens of billions of dollars to reduce the emissions of these pollutants. The results will be improved public health, ecosystems and visibility.

“These actions are the largest single investment in any clean air program in history,” said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. “While we continue to believe that the Clear Skies Act is the best approach to reducing power plant emissions, and we are committed to working with our congressional sponsors to move this landmark legislation through Congress, we must move forward with these steps now.”

Combined with other air quality actions by EPA and the states, the new rule is expected to bring almost all of New England into compliance with the nation’s eight-hour ozone (smog) standard by 2012. Most of New England’s most populated areas are currently out of compliance with the ozone standard, including all of Massachusetts, Rhode Island , Connecticut and parts of Maine and New Hampshire. The region had 17 smog-alert days this past summer and 43 smog-exceedance days in 2002.

“This action, together with other air quality regulations previously announced, ensures dramatic air quality improvements in New England and the rest of the country over the next decade,” said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office. “The rule will significantly reduce power plant emissions blowing into the region, making it much more likely that most of New England will comply with air quality standards by 2012.”

A major focus of the rule is to pro-actively provide states with the strongest tools possible to help them meet the new health-based air quality ozone standards, without harming their local economies.

The rules focus on states that significantly contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution in the Eastern United States. These rules would reduce power plant emissions in two phases. Sulfur dioxide emissions would drop by 3.7 million tons by 2010 (a cut of approximately 40 percent from current levels) and by another 2.3 million tons when the rules are fully implemented after 2015 (a total cut of nearly 70 percent from today's levels). NOx emissions would be cut by 1.4 million tons by 2010 and by a total of 1.7 million tons by 2015 (a reduction of approximately 50 percent from today's levels in the 30 states covered under the rules). Cumulatively, the rules will eliminate approximately 34 million tons of SO2 and NOx emissions between now and 2015 beyond the reductions achieved under current programs. Moreover, emissions will be permanently capped and cannot increase.

The proposed mercury rules would focus on coal-fired power plants primarily; the proposed cap-and-trade alternative would cut mercury emissions to 15 tons by 2018, a reduction of 70 percent from current levels.

The complete plan will consist of a set of new rules to cut the long-range transport of two gases called sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Mercury is also transported long distances, and the agency will propose two alternative control plans, one of which will be a proven market-based cap-and-trade approach that has demonstrated its ability to cut emissions faster and at less cost.

SO2 and NOx can be transported in the wind, causing environmental and health problems hundreds of miles away. SO2 and NOx emissions contribute to the formation of fine particles, which can pose serious health risks, especially for people with heart or lung disease (including asthma) and older adults and children. NOx emissions also contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog), which poses risks for people with lung diseases and children and adults who are active outdoors.

Ozone can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma, reduce lung capacity and increase people’s susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.

Mercury is a highly toxic substance that can impair cognitive and motor skills and can impair reproductive, immune and endocrine systems in unborn children.

EPA will formally propose the Interstate Air Quality Rule in December 2003 and then take public comment. A final rule is planned for 2005. The mercury rules will be proposed by December 15.


New England has seen dramatic air quality improvements in the past 10 years and more improvements are expected in the coming years due to various state and federal actions. Among the highlights:

Ground-level ozone concentrations have decreased 21 percent from 1983 to 2002. The reductions – including a 22 percent drop in NOx emissions and a 26 percent drop in volatile organic compounds emissions between 1990 and 1999 - are due to such actions as cleaning burning gasoline, tougher standards for new cars and trucks and tougher federal non-road standards, including diesel equipment, lawn and garden equipment and marine engines.

Mercury emissions in New England have dropped by 54 percent since 1998, according to an August 2003 report to the New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers. The reduction is largely the result of tougher mercury controls imposed on municipal waste incinerators and medical waste incinerators.