Tall smokestacks are one reason that emissions from coal-fired power plants are blown across state lines, making it more difficult for downwind states to clean up their air, a new Government Accountability Office study found.
Nationwide, there are now 284 smokestacks in operation that are more than 500 feet tall, the report says. About 35 percent of those are in five states along the Ohio River Valley -- Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Power companies build tall stacks to avoid causing air quality problems in the area around coal plants. But the states along the I-95 corridor in the Northeast blame tall smokestacks for their struggles to meet federal air quality goals, claiming that the stacks feed into fast air currents that carry soot- and smog-forming emissions for hundreds of miles.
GAO found that many older coal plants have tall smokestacks and no modern pollution controls. Fifty-six percent of the boilers attached to tall stacks lack scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide (SO2), and 63 percent do not have controls to trap emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx).
"Stack height is one of several factors that contribute to the interstate transport of air pollution," the report says. "While the use of pollution controls has increased in recent years at coal power plants, several boilers connected to tall stacks remain uncontrolled."
U.S. EPA has discouraged tall stacks by writing a "good engineering practice" formula that bars power companies from taking credit for the air quality benefits that result from stacks taller than a certain height. Of the 48 stacks above 500 feet that were built since those rules were upheld in court in 1988, 17 are taller than the formula height.
The report, which was released late Friday, was requested by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's oversight subpanel.
He and his East Coast colleagues are pushing EPA to require those coal plants to cut their pollution with new regulations such as the soon-to-be-finalized Clean Air Transport Rule, which would tighten the caps on SO2 and NOx emissions starting next year, and the proposed limits on mercury and other toxic emissions, which would make power plants add controls that also trap SO2 and soot.
Many electric companies and coal-state lawmakers oppose the rules, saying they will cause power prices to spike across the Midwest. When it came out with a plan for complying with EPA's proposed rules last week, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. Inc. predicted that its customers would see rate increases of between 10 percent and about 35 percent.
"The sudden increase in electricity rates and impacts on state economies will be significant at a time when people and states are still struggling," Michael Morris, the company's CEO, said in a statement.
But lawmakers such as Whitehouse and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) argue that their states are already paying dearly to make up for the emissions from tall stacks in the Ohio River Valley.
"When we're trying to compete with states that get much cheaper utility costs because they burn dirty fuels, and we have to increase our utility costs in part to control those emissions and then we end up paying higher health care costs, it's just not fair," Carper said during a hearing earlier this year. "It's just not fair."
Click here to read the report.