GenOn Energy Inc., a major nationwide energy generator, announced on Feb. 29 that the company will retire seven of its oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants. These plants are located in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states whose residents are most affected by pollution from coal-fired power plants.
GenOn announced the following retirements during a meeting with investors—Portland, Shawville, Titus, New Castle and Elrama in Pennsylvania and Niles and Avon Lake in Ohio. In total, these retirements will bring 2,980 megawatts of dirty and dangerous coal pollution to an end.
Pollution from coal-fired power plants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and mercury, contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S.—heart attacks, stroke, respiratory illnesses and cancer. Closure of the seven plants will prevent more than 179 premature deaths, 300 heart attacks and 2,800 asthma attacks, according to data from the Clean Air Task Force. That same report estimated the total economic impact of premature deaths and disease from these plants at more than $1.3 billion.
“Above all, this is a win for public health and for families who have been breathing polluted air from these outdated plants,” said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “GenOn has recognized that operating outdated, dirty coal plants just doesn’t make economic sense anymore, especially in a time when constructing a wind farm is now cheaper than building a new coal plant. What matters now is ensuring that GenOn does the right thing and transitions these workers into the growing clean energy sector.”
One of these coal-fired power plants, the Portland Generating Station, is the subject of a landmark ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring the plant to reduce the pollution it releases and stop it from carrying over from the plant's home state into New Jersey. The plant opposed that ruling, which was the first of its kind on a single-source emitter; the Sierra Club, in a coalition of environmental groups including Clean Air Council and Greenpeace, filed notice to join the lawsuit to defend EPA's ruling.
Activists in Ohio praised the planned plant retirements at Avon Lake and Niles. "For decades, these plants have been polluting our air and water," said Dave Simons, a Cleveland, Ohio resident and Energy Committee Chair for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. "Now we can look forward to a cleaner, brighter future when no one will get sick because of pollution from these plants."
But activists in both states also stressed the need for GenOn to ensure that its workforce will be transitioned into other employment when the plants are retired. “GenOn may have recognized that it just makes good economic sense for them to close these plants, but now they have the responsibility of making sure that their business decision doesn’t mean unemployment for their workers,” said Rashay Layman, organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Ohio.
The retirements, the most recent in a wave of similar announcements from energy providers, come at a time when the nation’s share of clean energy is at a record high. “Today’s news is part of a national trend of clean energy replacing coal, with states like Iowa and South Dakota that generate 20 percent of their electricity from wind," said Randy Francisco, organizing representative with the Beyond Coal Campaign in Pennsylvania.
Coal plants are major sources of climate disruption and toxic air pollution like mercury, soot and carbon pollution. These seven plants bring the tally of coal plant retirements to 106 since the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign began work to responsibly retire coal-fired power plants and develop clean energy in 2010.
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Conservation groups announced a settlement Jan. 17 with Duke Energy that will cut pollution by phasing out more than 1600 mega watts of dirty, old coal-fired power while still meeting customers’ energy needs.
The groups reached the settlement in an administrative challenge to the state-issued air pollution permit for construction and operation of a new coal-fired unit at Duke Energy’s Cliffside power plant near Shelby, N.C. The Southern Environmental Law Center negotiated the settlement on behalf of Environmental Defense Fund, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Under the settlement terms, Duke Energy will retire old coal-fired units that lack modern pollution control technology, totaling about 1667 megawatts or more than twice the capacity of the new unit at the Cliffside facility. Duke had previously included these coal-plant retirements in its non-binding, long-range plan submitted each year to the state utilities commission. The settlement agreement makes the planned retirements enforceable, thereby locking in reductions in air and water pollution that harms the health of children and families in the Carolinas.
As a result of advocacy by the conservation groups and other clean energy advocates, the new Cliffside unit will operate under the most stringent acid gas controls in the U.S., with a 99.9 percent reduction in such pollution. Acid gases, such as sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid, from coal-fired power plants can cause eye, nose, and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation, chest pain, coughing, nausea, impaired lung function, asthma attacks, and chronic bronchitis.
The settlement also tightens a permit provision that Duke Energy must demonstrate best practices to decrease toxic air pollution emitted during malfunction, shut down and start up situations.
Many old power plants operate today without modern pollution controls that are overdue since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. More than 400 coal- and oil-fired power plants nationwide release in excess of 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants into the atmosphere each year that are linked to cancer, heart disease, birth defects, asthma attacks and even premature death.
Statements from the attorney and groups involved follow:
“This settlement phases out some of the oldest, dirtiest, and most inefficient coal plants in the Carolinas,” said John Suttles, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represented the groups in court. “In addition to protecting people’s health and saving lives, it also will save ratepayers’ money by paving the way for a more efficient and sustainable energy future.”
“This settlement ends another chapter in the history of polluting coal generation that jeopardizes our health, air and water," said Michael Regan, director of energy efficiency for Environmental Defense Fund. "In the future, energy conservation and new technologies will provide North Carolina with reliable energy while protecting our families and economy.”
“The air quality improvements that will result from this settlement will provide present and future generations with substantially cleaner air in the region,” said Don Barger, National Parks Conservation Association's Southeast regional director. “The health of our people and parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park in particular, will long bear witness to the benefits realized from transitioning away from coal.”
“North Carolina has long been a clean air leader, and today's settlement is another important step forward for the Tarheel State. This settlement is critical for the health of North Carolina's families. Coal-fired electricity is the primary source of toxic mercury pollution and is a leading trigger of asthma attacks. These retirements will allow North Carolina to move beyond coal, and focus on clean energy solutions like solar and offshore wind," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
“We are pleased to finally have a settlement agreement with Duke Energy to offset the enormous amount of carbon dioxide that the Cliffside coal plant will emit over its lifespan,” stated Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Duke’s old coal plants need to come offline to reduce the company's contribution to climate change while making room for cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.”
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Environmental Defense Fund, a leading national nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. See twitter.com/EnvDefenseFund and facebook.com/EnvDefenseFund
Since 1919, the nonpartisan, non-profit National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. NPCA, its 340,000 members, and partners work together to protect the park system and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for our children and grandchildren.
Sierra Club is the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization with over 17,000 members in North Carolina and more than 1.4 million members and supporters nationwide. Since 2002, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has successfully stopped 161 new coal plant proposals from moving forward, and is working to move our nation beyond coal to a clean, safe energy economy.
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of more than 40 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized standards to limit the amount of mercury and other toxic pollutants that power plants can spew into the environment. As President Obama said the day the standard was announced, it was "a good day in the fight to protect our environment for the generations of Americans to come."
Toxic air pollutants from power plants—mercury, lead, arsenic and others—are linked to health problems such as cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks and even premature death. Mercury, for example, is a potent neurotoxin that poses a threat to fetal and infant brain development. And coal plants are far and away the greatest source of mercury air emissions in the U.S. This historic standard will lower mercury emissions by 90 percent, help avoid up to 11,000 premature deaths per year, and contribute to a much-needed transition to a cleaner electricity system.
The Obama administration played a major role in securing this historic standard, and they have the opportunity to score another similar victory for our health and environment this year—the EPA is currently drafting standards to limit global warming emissions from power plants. But the fossil fuel industries are pressuring the Obama administration to release weak standards that will do little or nothing to protect our health and environment from climate change.
Thank President Obama for protecting the public from toxic air pollution, and let him know that you expect the EPA to release strong standards to reduce global warming emissions from power plants in 2012.
Make your letter personal by adding in your own thoughts and concerns. Every letter makes a difference, but customized letters have the greatest effect.
Read more about the standards and an analysis from Union of Concerned Scientists expert Rachel Cleetus. Learn more about regulating toxic air pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act and the steps the EPA must take to reduce global warming emissions.
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