A Clean Air Revival

Twenty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Globe returns to the dirtiest power plant and a “dead” pond to see what happened - and find  lessons for climate change. 



By Michael Kranish

Globe Staff

Oct. 17, 2010 


WILMINGTON, Vt. - James H. Kellogg hoists a canoe on his shoulders and hikes up a rough trail to Haystack Pond, cradled beneath a mountain peak. The Vermont biologist, snug in a life jacket labeled "acid lakes," is on a mission to learn whether the harm humans do to the earth can be healed.

Twenty years after Congress ordered huge cuts in pollution from Midwestern power plants that had long rained acidic particles on the lakes, streams, and forests of New England - one of the most controversial environmental laws in the nation's history - Kellogg can jubilantly report that the answer is yes.

Pollution has been halved, and at far less expense than expected. Haystack Pond's waters are markedly less acidic, although it may still be years before fish return.

"It makes me ecstatic," Kellogg said.

Yet even as scientists confirm the extraordinary success of the 1990 acid rain legislation, some say its lessons are being ignored. Politicians failed this year to pass legislation on the wider threat of global warming in large part because of Republican ridicule of the bill's "cap-and-trade" approach - capping emissions and letting companies trade credits earned by cutting pollution. Yet it was a similar strategy, devised by a Republican president, that solved the acid rain puzzle.

To understand why the acid rain program succeeded, and what the implications could be for the global warming debate, the Globe retraced a journey taken 20 years ago, when it published a series of stories about the impact of clean air legislation. That meant a return to the Ohio power plant that was considered the single largest cause of acid rain, and to a Vermont pond that had been devastated by the pollution.

Through this lens - of the power plant and the pond - the story that emerges is one of unexpected victories, unintended consequences, and crucial lessons.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who considers the Clean Air Act legislation one of his proudest accomplishments, said that as Washington policymakers clash over how to deal with climate change, it is essential to understand the bipartisan approach that he took on acid rain.

"Public servants have an obligation to try to leave the earth better than we found it," the 86-year-old Bush said in an interview conducted via e-mail. Noting that a friend once suggested he view "the environment as `creation,' " he said, "It gives you a new appreciation for this issue and why it matters to Republicans and Democrats alike."

A power plant moves in

The village of Cheshire, Ohio, is nestled on a riverbank across from West Virginia. For decades, a few hundred residents lived there quietly, attending the red-brick church, skating at the local rink, and chatting at the small post office. Then, in the 1970s, American Electric Power opened a massive power plant. For many residents, it was a sign of progress and a source of civic pride.

The plant's 1,103-foot-high smokestack could be seen for miles. Taller than Boston's Hancock Tower by more than 300 feet, it was designed to release pollutants so they would drift far away from town. And so they did: picked up by northeasterly winds, thousands of tons of sulfur and nitrogen particles were carried to New England where they mixed with atmospheric moisture and fell to the earth.

This phenomenon became known as "acid rain," and it dominated environmental discussion at the time the way global warming does today.

No plant in the country spewed more acid rain emissions than American Electric's facility in Cheshire, making it a symbol of the fight.

Seven hundred miles northeast of the Cheshire plant, Haystack Pond was one of its downwind victims. At one point, rainfall in the area was found to be more acidic than vinegar, Kellogg said. It was one of hundreds of ponds and streams in New England rendered essentially dead, with no fish and little plant life.

Efforts to attack the acid rain crisis went nowhere until August 1988, when Vice President Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, declared he would sign legislation to curtail emissions. "I am an environmentalist," Bush said.

Bush's announcement was widely seen as an effort to undercut the Democratic nominee, Governor Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. Democrats had tried for years to require that "scrubbers" be installed on the dirtiest power plants, a costly technology that could remove about 95 percent of the two pollutants that cause acid rain: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Bush offered a game-changing idea. He said it was a mistake to try to implement what he called a "command and control" program that forced power companies to spend billions of dollars on government-mandated technology. Instead, he envisioned a free-market plan in which pollution credits would be traded to spark innovation and bring down costs.

The goal was to cut sulfur emissions in half, then cap them at that level. Power companies could reduce emissions in whatever way was cheapest, with new technology or by burning lower-sulfur coal or natural gas. Companies continuing to burn the dirtiest high-sulfur coal could buy pollution credits from companies that surpassed federal requirements.

It was the beginning of the effort to "cap" pollution and "trade" credits.

Some Democrats were concerned this would be a giveaway to power and coal companies. But Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell of Maine and others signed on, and Dukakis now congratulates Bush on the strategy. "When he announced that he was going to be the `environmental president,' I think a lot of us were very skeptical, but I must say he did what he said he would do," Dukakis said in an interview. "It's been a great success and Bush deserves credit for it."

The legislation passed, 401 to 25 in the House and 89 to 11 in the Senate, a strong bipartisan result achieved even as many power companies denounced the plan in apocalyptic terms. An American Electric Power official told the Globe the legislation could lead to "the potential destruction of the Midwest economy."

Such fears proved wildly overblown. The $2 billion annual cost of the acid rain controls is about one-fourth the initial estimate, due in part to the lower-than-expected cost of controlling pollution. Competition sprang up to produce highly efficient, lower-cost scrubbers, and rail lines competed to bring lower-sulfur coal from Western states to the Midwest.

"We learned that markets are a better solution than command and control," Bush said. "Markets can figure out, through price signals and trading, who can cut pollution at the lowest cost."

The cap-and-trade plan not only cut emissions, it also saved far more lives than expected. The cut in sulfur dioxide emissions reduced a type of tiny particulate matter that causes respiratory problems, an effect that is better understood today than when the legislation was passed.

Nearly 17,000 deaths a year were prevented in the United States and respiratory illnesses were lessened in hundreds of thousands of people, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the federal government. All told, the study found, the acid rain program is saving $108 billion annually in health costs.

At first, however, the new approach was a disaster for the townspeople of Cheshire.

The blue menacing cloud

American Electric Power, having failed to defeat the legislation, installed scrubbers at its Cheshire plant in hopes of making its emissions so clean it would earn extra credits in the cap-and-trade program.

Then came the menacing cloud.

Many of the 200 or so residents started noticing that emissions hovered over the town in an ominous shade of blue. Some residents reported a burning sensation on their skin. The company discovered that a byproduct of its scrubbers was emissions containing a form of sulfuric acid. The citizens of Cheshire hired a Washington lawyer. The company responded by buying much of the town.

American Electric, which eventually fixed the blue cloud problem, paid nearly $20 million to buy 78 homes, most of which the company tore down. Today, much of the residential part of Cheshire is a vast lawn around the plant.

James R. Rife, 70, who refused to be bought out by American Electric, lives with his family in the shadow of the giant smokestacks. "There used to be houses right here, right next door," Rife said. But he said the power company has been a good neighbor. "AEP has cleaned their air up real well."

The company's property now is lined with nearly $1 billion worth of scrubbing machines, interwoven pipes, and other equipment required by the Clean Air Act. The result is that the company removes 95 percent of sulfur dioxide and 91 percent of nitrogen oxide.

But the Clean Air Act had no requirement to eliminate carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas generally believed to cause global warming. At the Cheshire plant, carbon emissions have increased in the last decade by 25 percent to 20.1 million tons a year, partly because it takes extra power to run the equipment that scrubs away the acid rain emissions.

Once one of the loudest complainers about government environmental regulation, AEP is now out to prove that a market approach can also work to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

"AEP was one of the big believers that `just say no' was the right attitude to take" about acid rain, Mike Morris, the company's chief executive, said in an interview. But the concept of trading emission credits "turned out to be a beautiful idea" because it lowered the cost of the program, he said.

Now, he said, the company wants to lead the way on climate change.

Striking evidence of the culture shift at AEP can be seen at a power plant it owns in New Haven, W.Va., where a complex of pipes trap some of carbon emissions. A year ago, the company began what it called an unprecedented experiment to determine whether carbon gases emitted by a power plant could be trapped and stored one or two miles underground. The test has proven successful and the company will soon begin work on a larger project, half-funded by a $334 million federal grant.

Morris said his company craves certainty about the shape of new carbon regulations. Also key is that power companies can recoup the cost of new antipollution technology. As for the environment, he said: "If we can make things better, why wouldn't we?"

AEP has some powerful company in this view. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents many utility companies that fought acid rain controls 20 years ago, endorsed the House version of climate change legislation, which included a cap-and-trade plan.

Initially, the chief Democratic sponsors of the House legislation, Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden and Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, thought such endorsements would win over Republicans. But most GOP House members opposed the measure.

"In 1990, we had industry opposed but we had Republicans willing to work with us," Waxman said. "This time around we had much of industry working hard to get the law passed but we couldn't get the Republicans engaged in this process."

However, some energy interests, such as the National Mining Association, opposed the legislation. GOP leaders have raised questions about the science behind global warming and expressed concerns about the impact that controlling carbon emissions would have on the economy. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who supported the clean air legislation 20 years ago, frequently branded the climate change version of cap and trade as a "national energy tax." (McConnell declined comment.)

Republicans say the Obama administration should have taken a lesson from the way Bush pushed the acid rain bill.

Bush staked out a clear position, filing a bill that called for halving emissions, and using it as a basis for negotiations with Congress. "A president has to lead - and at times be firm," Bush said in the interview. "Once we achieved our key objectives, we were more open to compromise to get a final bill passed."

Obama, by contrast, did not send a climate-change bill to Congress. Instead, he laid out key concepts and urged legislators to work out their differences. His budget at first called for selling the carbon emissions credits, collecting $646 billion over 10 years. There was talk of using the windfall to reduce the deficit or hand out tax cuts to the middle-class. By contrast, Bush's bill gave away acid rain credits, with the understanding that the number of allowances would shrink as emissions were halved.

Opponents labeled Obama's plan "cap and tax." It didn't matter that the idea floated in Obama's initial budget never made it into legislation or that the plan passed by the House allocated most of the credits to help industries adjust to new carbon rules and to offset consumer rate increases. The "tax" label stuck.

The House narrowly passed the legislation, 219 to 212. But it stalled in the Senate, where Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a cosponsor, gained the support of at least 55 Democrats but no Republicans, leaving him five short of the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

C. Boyden Gray, who played a key role in the acid rain program as President Bush's White House counsel, said Democrats spoiled the chances for cap and trade by trying to sell the permits. "If they had simply dropped the tax aspects of it, they could have gotten it through," Gray said. "They sort of went over the cliff with it. I don't know if it can be resurrected."

Kerry, who worked on the acid rain provisions in 1990, dismissed assertions that his climate bill was doomed because he wanted to sell about 15 percent of the carbon permits. Instead, he said in an interview, the bill was caught up in a partisan atmosphere during a recession and opposition from some Republicans who doubt global-warming science.

"People were scared by the successful demagoguery of `cap and tax,' " Kerry said.

As Kerry considers a strategy for bringing up climate change legislation next year, he said he may consider whether to give away nearly all the permits.

"We would have to see what the market will bear - politically," Kerry said.

Backers have leverage

Democrats do have some leverage for trying to pass the bill next year: the threat that the Environmental Protection Agency might regulate global warming gases without congressional action.

The agency has the authority to do so, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007. But it could be just the sort of "command and control" approach that Bush showed 20 years ago could be successfully avoided - to the benefit of industry and of the environment.

Back at Haystack Pond, Kellogg pushes his canoe from the shoreline. The 27-acre pond is in a nearly perfect bowl, seemingly insulated from the outside world. Haystack Mountain rises to the west, and smaller peaks complete the curtain. A breeze rustles the golden leaves from a stand of white birch trees on the eastern shore, and then brushes across the pond, sending thousands of riffles across the water like so many wings.

It seems a place of unstained natural beauty, but as Kellogg rows toward the deepest water, he finds that it isn't - at least not yet. The pond is stunningly - and unnaturally - clear; he can see 30 feet to the bottom. Most of the native aquatic plants, not to mention fish, still cannot survive the remaining acidity.

But while the progress may not be discernible to the naked eye, it is clear to Kellogg. Since the Clean Air Act legislation was adopted in 1990, acidity in Haystack Pond has dropped tenfold, Kellogg said.

"The fish and the bugs will come when the chemistry is less acidic," he said.

Kellogg is an aquatic biologist, not a politician, so the machinations in Washington are a world away. But to him, the improvement at Haystack Pond and lakes throughout New England are proof that government can work, and that environmental harm can be repaired. After a few more years of improvement, the state might determine that fish could survive at Haystack and stock it with brook trout. Or fish might arrive the natural way, via a stream.

Yet, he still worries.

"What it says to a biologist in Vermont is that regulations that affect national pollutants do work," Kellogg said as he finished his tests at the pond. "I'd hate to have these lakes fully restored from acidification only to fall victim to climate change."