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Editorial: Phasing out the dinosaurs

As part of the bargain to get state approval for a new 800-megawatt coal-fired boiler at Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant, the power company will shut down some of its older power units ó and that’s good news for Rowan County’s air quality.
Two of the coal-fired units scheduled for retirement in the near future are at the Buck Steam Station on the Yadkin River. The units are more than 60 years old, which makes them noxious dinosaurs in terms of pollution and efficiency. Duke previously shut down two other coal-fired units at the plant. While it may not be possible to directly link these outdated units to Rowan County’s well-publicized air quality problems, the plants have drawn concern from statewide and regional environmental groups worried about sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions. To those concerns, add the growing consensus that carbon dioxide emissions ó another byproduct of fossil fuels ó are a major factor in global climate change. Last year, ruling in a case brought by the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court said that Duke erred when it upgraded eight coal-fired plants, including unit 4 at the Buck Station, without installing more stringent pollution controls required under the Clean Air Act.
Since the 2003 American Lung Association report that cited Rowan as having the poorest air quality in the state and some of the worst in the nation, local concerns have abated somewhat. The ALA 2007 “State of the Air” survey still gave Rowan a grade of “F” for ozone pollution. But at least it dropped off the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted counties in the nation.
Duke’s coal-fired power plants don’t bear all of the blame for air pollution locally or in North Carolina, of course. Researchers say that automobile tailpipe emissions are responsible for about half of our ozone problems. State officials also contend that the Charlotte region suffers from pollution wafting our way from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. North Carolina has sued the TVA, and a federal appeals court recently ruled that North Carolina can proceed with its case accusing the TVA of creating a “public nuisance” for North Carolina citizens.
To have credibility in its battle against pollution from elsewhere, however, North Carolina has to clear its own air, a process it began in earnest with the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which targeted coal-fired power plant emissions, including nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury. The state also expanded auto emissions testing programs. As part of the N.C. effort, Duke will gradually phase out its older coal-fired plants in order to get regulatory approval for newer projects, such as the Cliffside plant and the addition of a natural-gas-fired power unit at Buck.
The Cliffside project has been opposed by groups who contend that even cleaner-burning coal plants harm the environment, and it’s likely that this will be the last coal-fired plant built in North Carolina. In trying to strike a balance between supplying power and limiting environmental risks, there’s no perfect solution. But at least Duke’s foulest dinosaurs are headed for extinction.


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