Obama and EPA Release Historic Carbon Reduction Plan to Fight Climate Change
For the first time in U.S. history, an administration has proposed rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed that existing plants reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent—compared to 2005 levels—by 2030. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of the country's emissions and collectively constitute the nation's single-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.
If reached, that goal would represent "net climate and health benefits" of $48 billion to $82 billion, according to the EPA's 645-page document. Despite that reduction, coal and natural gas would still remain the country's top two sources of energy, combining for more than 60 percent of the grid, the EPA projects.
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Though the carbon rule represents a monumental moment many environmentalists have been awaiting, it remains a proposal until June 2015, when the open period for revisions and public comment ends. Still, optimism arose Monday for the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's climate action plan.
"The President promised he would act to tackle the climate crisis and protect the health of our children and grandchildren—and he is keeping his word," Michael Brune, executive director of the 2.4 million-member Sierra Club said prior to the rules' unveiling. "These aren’t just the first-ever protections to clean up carbon pollution from power plants, they represent the largest single step any President has ever taken to fight climate disruption."
Emissions dropped by about 10 percent from 2005 to 2012, which is a "good start" when coupled with advances in renewable energy and efficiency programs, Obama said. Still, the rules are needed for the country to do its part in curbing climate change, scientists have warned about for years.
"Right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe—none," Obama said in his national address Saturday. "We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air.
"It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense."
The EPA believes researchers and developers, as well as individual cities and states, have shown that the 30-percent target is achievable because current innovations in electricity and sustainability. Just last week the solar energy sector celebrated dominating the first quarter of 2014 with 74 percent of all new energy capacity.
“This is a critical first step toward the U.S. meeting its obligations as a good global citizen to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dr. Michael E. Mann, an author and director of Penn State University's Earth System Science Center.
“When it comes to environmental protection, today is a defining moment in American history," Resch said. "As a nation, we're poised to finally turn the page from sooty smokestacks to sunnier skies—and America’s solar energy industry is uniquely positioned to play a key role in the fight against climate change.
“At their very heart, the proposed new EPA regulations provide a common sense and flexible approach to reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. They also can serve as a roadmap for future renewable energy policy in America."
The House of Representatives and coal industry are largely expected to push back on the rule, particularly as the November elections approach. While clean energy advocates and legislators who support their cause will argue about the positive impact the rule will have on the air we breathe, opposers will focus on the potential for job losses. Governors in coal-heavy states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Kansas have already directing their state environmental agencies to craft their own carbon emission plans that focus on compliance costs for individual power plants, the Associated Press reported.
Greenpeace USA Climate and Energy Campaign Director Gabe Wisniewski says pushback regarding the rule's potential economic impact from the industry, legislators and lobbyists like the American Legislative Exchange Council is to be expected, though, it will likely make little sense.
"The most successful and innovative businesses in the country are sprinting to adopt efficient, renewable energy," he said in a statement. "Leading technology companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have all committed to power with 100-percent renewable energy, and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies are joining them."
The Hip Hop Caucus, which played a crucial role in inspiring the youth vote in recent elections, also expressed approval of the rule proposal.
"For the civil right generation and the post-civil right generation—named the Hip Hop generation by many—solving climate change is a 21st century civil rights struggle," said Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., the group's president and CEO. "The creation of carbon pollution standards is best for all of America. We must protect all of our citizens—rich and poor, women and men, the elderly and children, those of all races—from health- and life-threatening pollution.
"Carbon pollution standards for existing power plants are about making our country the best it can be."
Some groups were supportive of the proposal, but said it was a little too late and could have done more.
“Waterkeeper Alliance is supportive of President Obama’s actions today to cut carbon emissions and protect the environment,” said Donna Lisenby, the organization's global coal campaign coordinator. “The rulemaking comes late in the Obama Presidency and doesn’t go as far as we’d like, but it's welcome news for our nation’s rivers and environment.
"We would have preferred a stronger rulemaking that took effect immediately and required deeper carbon cuts, but this action is welcome news for everyone who respects and appreciates the value of our nation’s threatened waterways and the health of our planet.”
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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