Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act is the comprehensive Federal law that regulates air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources. This law authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect public health and the environment. The goal of the Act was to set and achieve NAAQS in every state by 1975. The Act was amended in 1977 primarily to set new goals (dates) for achieving attainment of NAAQS since many areas of the country had failed to meet the deadlines.

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act in large part were intended to meet unaddressed or insufficiently addressed problems such as acid rain, ground-level ozone, stratospheric ozone depletion, and air toxics.

The Loophole in the Clean Air Act

Despite continuing progress toward cleaner air in the United States, the majority of the nation's power plants are not improving. The air pollution that now jeopardizes our health and environment is the result of political compromises made more than 20 years ago. When the U.S. Congress amended the Clean Air Act to adopt stricter emission controls on electrical generating plants in 1970, Congress and many utility officials believed that most of the industry's older coal plants would retire within 20-30 years. Utilities projected that newer, cleaner fossil fuel plants and nuclear power plants would replace these older plants.

In response, Congress purposely exempted or "grandfathered" existing plants from new, tighter emissions regulations. However, due to a number of factors, many planned new power plants never were constructed. Instead, the utilities continued to rely on their fleet of aging coal and oil plants to meet the demand for electricity.

In the 1977 amendments of the Clean Air Act, further political compromises made the problem worse when Congress granted continued exemptions from new source emissions regulations to all plants that were either planned or under construction. The most-polluting portion of the nation'sÊfleet was built prior to the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments.

Furthermore, a disproportionate number of the most polluting plants were built in the 1950s and 1960s (such as the Salem Harbor Plant). As a result of this "grandfathering," 14 power plants in New England are not required to operate under the Clean Air Act's emission standards for new plants. Many of these plants are up to ten times dirtier than even a new coal plant and more than any other source spew pollution that causes smog, soot, mercury contamination in fish, and acid rain.

The utility industry continually points out that these older plants comply with the requirements of the law. However, the wisdom of permitting so many plants to emit high levels of pollution is now being questioned, especially since many of these grandfathered plants are not being retired, as the utility industry predicted 20 years ago.

In fact, power companies may refurbish and increase operation of these dirtiest plants in the years to come.

Industry Changes Threaten More Pollution

The electric utility industry is in a period of great change as deregulation is scheduled to take place Massachusetts. This will introduce more competition into electricity markets, and will allow consumers to choose their power company. These new markets, through their emphasis on lower prices and discount plans, may actually encourage increased electricity consumption by consumers. Unfortunately, unless actions are taken, changes in markets, regulations, and growing demand for electricity also could lead to increased emissions from the dirtiest plants. Power companies will strive to cut costs in response to competition in a deregulated electric industry. To reduce their costs and meet increased demand for electricity, companies are likely to turn to their fleet of aging coal and oil-fired plants, often the companies' least expensive way to generate electricity but the most costly to society as a whole.

Closing the Loophole

In order to level the playing field and give every citizen the same clean air that they deserve, the old coal and oil plants must be required to meet the same standards as new plants. While this has now been done in Massachusetts through regulations signed in 2001, proposals by the Bush Administration would weaken the current law.

Sources: "Polluting Power; A Report on New England's Dirtiest Power Plants" written by Clean Water Fund, Natural Resources Council of Maine, MASSPIRG, and Toxic Action Center.