Sunday, June 04, 2006

Air Pollution Goes Global

by Stephen Leahy
Inter Press Service
June 2, 2006

U.S.-based coal-burning power companies have become the target of international lawsuits so Canadians can one day hope to breathe cleaner air.

Last month, the province of Ontario joined the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, along with two environmental groups, in a legal action against seven coal-fired electricity plants run by Duke Energy Corp.

"I stand here representing 12 million Ontarians who every day breathe in the air pollution coming from those seven electrical generating facilities from Ohio and Indiana," Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten said in media reports.

"More than 55 percent of the health and environmental impacts of air pollution in Ontario are the result of U.S. emissions," Monica Campbell of the Environmental Protection Office in the city of Toronto told IPS.

U.S. trans-boundary pollution accounts for an estimated 2,750 premature deaths and five billion dollars in health and environmental damages annually, according to an Ontario government study last year.

"Diplomacy is not working," Campbell said of efforts to clean up emissions from U.S. coal plants, some of which were built in the 1950s. Toronto and Ontario have appealed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to not weaken its air pollution rules to allow the old, worst polluting plants to continue to operate without emissions reductions.

"We've told the EPA that these plants are having serious adverse health impacts on our residents," she said.

However, as long as the George W. Bush administration remains at the helm, Campbell expects to see little progress on the issue, even though cleaning up dirty coal plants benefits residents on both sides of the border.

"Lawsuits have a reasonable chance of success," the Canadian official said.

But even if successful, they take a long time to resolve. In 2000, Ontario and New York State sued the American Electric Power Corporation (AEP) because its nine power plants violate U.S. environmental laws. The case is still before the courts.

This is just one small part of a global problem. Pollution, especially air pollution, is free to travel to all parts of the world.

Last month, out-of-control farm fires in Russia were blamed for soaring particulate levels in Scotland and Northern England that exceeded safety levels. Heavy black smoke blanketed Gibraltar for days in late May because of a problem at an oil refinery in neighbouring Spain.

And it's not just the impact of emissions from one country on its neighbour -- pollutants that affect human health, such as mercury, ozone and particulates, regularly cross the oceans, says Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Washington who made the first discoveries of trans-boundary pollution in the 1990s.

"Pollutants from Asia can actually affect U.S. air quality," Jaffe told IPS.

The most famous incident was an enormous brown dust cloud from China that descended on the U.S. in April 2001 and pushed air pollution up to unhealthy levels over much of the country, he said.

A large quantity of Asia's ocean-spanning pollution comes from coal-burning power plants, which are also responsible for 25 percent of U.S. mercury emissions.

Children exposed to even low levels of mercury before birth can experience serious neurological and development impairments. Currently more than 60,000 children born each year may suffer from learning disabilities due to mercury exposure before birth, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned that one in 12 women of childbearing age carry levels of mercury in their bodies that are unsafe for a developing fetus.

But even if the United States reduced its homegrown mercury emissions from coal plants, trans-boundary mercury emissions are rising fast. The number of coal power plants in Asia is expected to double in 10 years to meet the region's fast-growing energy needs, said Jaffe.

"That will have a much larger impact on the air quality of the U.S.," the scientist noted, adding that these emissions will also hurt Asia. "Air pollution is already a huge drain on local economies in Asia because of the economic costs of the health and environmental problems."

But the situation offers a great opportunity for the U.S. to help Asia develop cleaner sources of energy, he said. Technology transfer, financial assistance and information sharing are in the U.S.'s best interests.

There are already efforts underway between the U.S, China and India, but it remains to be seen how effective they are, he said.

Equally important is international regulation of emissions. Formed in 1979, the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Long-Range Trans-boundary Air Pollution is intended to reduce and prevent air pollution. The convention is best known for its Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

The POPs Protocol, as it is known, entered into force in 2003 and commits parties or members to severely restrict use of select pesticides like DDT and to reduce emissions of dioxins and other hazardous chemicals to certain levels.

The Protocol on Heavy Metals went into force three months later, restricting emissions of mercury, lead and cadmium to below 1990 levels.

The U.S. and Canada are parties to these protocols, but it is almost entirely a European initiative. No Asian countries are participating -- and that will have to change, says Jaffe.

Negotiations to set acceptable emissions levels and create a timeframe will be a long and complicated negotiation, Jaffe said, adding: "How can we tell Asia they can't build those coal plants, when that's what we've done in the past?"

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service


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