New Source Review. That sounds like a lowbrow cabaret production.
Actually, New Source Review is a section of the Clean Air Act. But over the past decade or so, New Source Review has played out like a cheesy floor show at a smoky dive.
The play came to a happy ending this week when American Electric Power (AEP), one of the nation's largest utilities, agreed to spend gobs of money to settle a New Source Review lawsuit and cut pollution from 16 coal-fired power plants in five states.
At $4.6 billion for the cleanup, plus $75 million in spare change for penalties and mitigation projects, the Environmental Protection Agency says the consent decree is the largest single environmental settlement in American history.
EPA, one of the plaintiffs, estimates that pollution controls will keep more than 800,000 tons of NOX and SOX out of the air.
NOX and SOX (that's nitrogen and sulfur oxides), emitted by coal combustion, are bad actors that fill the air with unhealthy particulate matter, ugly haze, and acid precipitation that harms lakes and forests. EPA estimates that the public health benefits of reducing airborne gunk from the AEP plants will be worth $32 billion in avoided health care costs.
The drama began in 1999, when EPA, joined by eight Northeastern states and a baker's dozen environmental groups, sued American Electric Power for violating the Clean Air Act.
Flashback to the 70s
This story line, however, requires a flashback. Back in the 1970s, Congress struggled with addressing pollution from power plants that were built before the Clean Air Act was adopted. Require them to clean up immediately or give them a permanent pass from pollution controls?
Congress settled on a muddled compromise called New Source Review, which was adopted in 1977. The old clunkers could continue generating and spewing, but if they made major modifications that resulted in significant pollution increases, they would have to clean up.
At the time, Congress thought the old coal plants would be phased out in short order as utilities turned to nuclear energy.
It didn't turn out that way. The plot thickened, like the air over East Coast cities in the summer. Nuclear went into political exile after Three Mile Island. Utilities kept the old coal beaters going, like a backyard mechanic keeping his don't-laugh-it's-paid-for '68 Impala rather than buying a flashy but high-cost roadster.
Enter lawyers, stage left, right and center. In 1999, EPA went to court after concluding that AEP was taking undue liberties with New Source Review by making big plant modifications without cleaning up. Northeastern states, worried about air pollution drifting eastward from AEP plants in the Ohio River Valley, joined the lawsuit.
AEP insisted that the modifications were only routine maintenance, and thus exempt from New Source Review.
Eight years of convoluted legal maneuvering later, the parties settled. The actors are taking their bows and the cabaret is closing up.
A Simple Solution Ignored
But all this drama need not take place if a simple script prepared by the National Academy of Public Administration were adopted into law.
The academy, a think tank chartered by Congress to improve government effectiveness, published a clear-eyed report on New Source Review in 2003. The academy proposed a simple solution to cleaning up the decades-old coal plants that have not been upgraded since 1977 -- give them a firm deadline to clean up or close down, regardless of whether they've been modified or not.
The proposal has the elegance of simplicity -- or the highest degree of simplicity one is likely to find in federal policymaking.
Nothing much has come of the report, or of updating the Clean Air Act, for that matter. Not much is likely to happen over the next year's election frenzy.
But continually improving the nation's air quality -- a clear goal of the Clean Air Act -- is still a live issue demanding congressional attention. It's one more item for the growing national to-do list awaiting the arrival of 2009.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.