Westar Energy’s top air-quality official says it will be impossible for the state’s dominant electric company to comply with new federal pollution regulations taking effect at the beginning of next year.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s no way we can comply with this rule on Jan. 1,” said Bill Eastman, director of air programs for Westar. “It’s too soon and it’s too quick. . . It literally appears right now impossible.”
Eastman and other Westar officials reached that conclusion after analyzing the impact of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule announced July 7 by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Complying with emission rules is already going to cost Westar customers $1.5æbillion. The rule changes could add to that if Westar has to buy pollution credits or pay fines.
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The new rules, more than 1,300 pages in length, cover power plants in 27 states in the eastern half of the country.
They are designed to reduce pollution that drifts across state borders and makes it difficult to impossible for downwind cities to meet air quality standards.
Westar will have to reduce emissions of two smog- and soot-producing pollutants by more than 10,000 tons a year.
The company already has a sweeping plan for emission reduction.
“We believe that in 2015, we can meet the requirements,” Eastman said.
From 2012 until the plants are in compliance, Westar could have to purchase pollution “credits” from other power plants or pay millions of dollars in fines to the EPA.
The exact effect on customers’ bills is not yet known, but it is expected to be substantial.
Ordinarily, the company can’t pass fines through to customers, said David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board.
But state regulators might allow that if Westar could prove it was impossible to avoid the penalty, he said.
EPA: Health at risk
The regulations cover two major pollutants, sulfur dioxide, which is abbreviated SO2, and nitrogen oxide, or NOX.
SO2 and NOX both contribute to formation of particulate soot in the atmosphere, while NOX also contributes to ozone smog.
The EPA estimates that the new rules will prevent as many as 34,000 premature deaths, along with substantially reducing heart attacks, acute bronchitis, aggravated asthma and other breathing problems.
Agency officials who could explain why utilities are given only six months to comply with the new rules — which can involve hundreds of millions of dollars in power plant refitting — were not available for comment Tuesday.
David Bryan, a spokesman for the EPA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City, Kan., said the agency’s position is “that all the sources (of pollution) will be able to meet deadlines.”
“The final rule does give each source the flexibility to choose how they will comply,” he said. “They can run existing (emission) controls or those expected to come on line in the future. They can make changes in the way electricity is distributed across their facility. They can buy allowances, among other things.”
Under the new rules, Kansas power plants are given a pollution allowance of 40,697 tons of SO2. In 2010, they produced 45,251 tons.
The state produced 48,938 tons of NOX last year.
The new rules will require a reduction to 30,100 tons of NOX next year and to 25,049 tons by 2014, said Tom Gross, chief of monitoring and planning for the Bureau of Air at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The EPA considers Kansas a “contributor state” for pollution, and its modeling maps show emissions from here contributing to air quality problems as far away as Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Kansas isn’t listed as a “receptor state” for pollution, although air-quality monitoring clearly shows that the state does receive pollution from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.
Gross said Kansas doesn’t qualify as a receptor because it had no areas out of compliance with federal air quality standards when the rules were initially drafted.
He said he expects that to change in the future as the rules are updated to reflect more recent — and tougher — clean-air standards.
Clean air, big money
Kansas utilities have already reduced emissions substantially.
In the past five years, they’ve cut SO2 emissions by more than 91,000 tons a year and NOX by nearly 40,000 tons, according to federal records.
The biggest reduction came from pollution control measures at Westar’s biggest coal-fired power plant, the Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Mary’s.
That plant reduced emissions from 69,000 tons of SO2 in 2005 to 1,200 tons in 2010; and NOX emissions from about 32,000 tons to 18,000.
The current estimated cost for reducing emissions at the company’s three coal plants is:
„ $650æmillion for Westar’s share of the LaCygne Energy Center, which the company shares with Kansas City Power and Light.
„ $450æmillion for the Jeffrey Energy Center.
„ $380æmillion for the Lawrence Energy Center.
According to company records, Westar now produces 19,045 tons of SO2 and 30,802 tons of NOX a year.
Its new limit will be 18,932 tons of SO2 and 20,549 tons of NOX by 2012.
By 2014, the company will have to further reduce its NOX emissions to 17,105 tons a year.
“We’re very concerned about the rule, and extremely concerned about the timeline,” Eastman said.