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Study Ties Utilities to Future Dirty Air Deaths

Apr 19, 2002 | Charlotte Observer

Power plant emissions from Duke Energy and seven other utilities could cause premature deaths in 560 adults a year in the Carolinas, even after more effective pollution controls are installed, says a study by a consulting firm.

Abt Associates did the report on fine-particle pollutants for the Rockefeller Family Fund, a New York philanthropy that advocates for the environment and other causes. Abt is an air-pollution consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA's former enforcement chief served as project manager for the study.

Abt focused on eight utilities, including Duke, that the government has sued over power-plant emissions. It estimates premature deaths and illnesses, by state, that would be caused by fine particles from each utility in 2007.

"We thought it was time to point some fingers" at those utilities, said Rob Kaplan, a spokesman for Rockefeller.

The report based its estimate on 2007 because that's when new federal limits on power-plant releases are to be in place. It says emissions by then will lead to 5,900 premature deaths among people 30 or older in the United States. It would also cause 4,300 additional cases of chronic bronchitis and 140,000 asthma attacks a year.

EPA officials in Research Triangle Park, where the agency researches the health effects of air pollution, couldn't be reached Thursday.

Duke said its eight coal-fired power plants meet federal and state standards, and that the company is investing hundreds of millions in new pollution controls. Duke serves more than 2 million customers in the central and western parts of the Carolinas.

An electric industry group said it doubts the study's methodology and conclusions, which haven't been reviewed by science peers for publication.

"The scientific evidence is not there that would link power-plant emissions, as opposed to other sources of particulates, as a main cause of specific health effects," said Jayne Brady of the Edison Electric Institute.

Abt, however, says its findings are conservative. The computer models Abt used to produce the estimates are the same it uses on behalf of the EPA, Kaplan said.

Power plants are believed to produce at least 75 percent of the state's fine-particle pollution, an N.C. Division of Air Quality spokesman said. Sixteen N.C. counties, including Mecklenburg, and four in South Carolina have recorded fine-particle levels in excess of a new federal standard.

A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked high concentrations to premature death from heart disease and lung cancer.

The Abt study says Duke's emissions alone will contribute nationally to the premature deaths of 550 people; 420 additional cases of chronic bronchitis; 596 additional hospital admissions; 14,000 asthma attacks and 110,000 lost days of work.

Only 157 of those deaths, and a proportionate amount of sickness, would come from the Carolinas.

Emissions that form fine particles can travel hundreds of miles on the wind. Abt estimated that each of the eight utilities -- most of which are in the Southeast and Ohio Valley -- would be responsible for health problems in many states.

The study attributes 76 early deaths a year in the Carolinas to the Tennessee Valley Authority and 126 deaths to Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Duke said its coal-fired plants are among the most efficient in the nation. Pollution controls now being installed will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide 75 percent by 2004.

"We're very proud of our coal plants," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

Williams said Duke will support an N.C. clean-air measure that would further reduce pollutants, if it allows the utility to recover the cost of new pollution devices from customers.

"We can only do what we're required to do," Williams said. "If the requirements change, we'll comply with them."

A 2000 lawsuit that charges Duke with modifying its coal-fired plants without upgrading pollution controls is still before a federal court.

Eric Schaeffer, listed as project manager for the Abt study, left as EPA's chief of civil enforcement last month and was hired as a Rockefeller consultant.

Schaeffer has criticized the Bush administration's enforcement of the Clean Air Act, saying it weakened the government's ability to force new pollution controls on the utilities it had sued.

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