Researchers, environment win big in pollution cases
By Fariss Samarrai
A long-term environmental study conducted by U.Va. researchers has contributed to the settlements of two major Clean Air Act cases brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency against two Midwestern power companies.
Rick Webb, a research scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences, served as an expert witness in the cases, providing findings from more than 20 years of stream monitoring and data analysis from the U.Va.-led Shenandoah Watershed Study. Webb is the study’s projects coordinator.
Due to prevailing winds that carry pollution — primarily sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — at least 13 states in the Southeast and Midwest contribute to acidic rain in Virginia. This pollution, mainly from coal-burning power plants, causes long-term damage to mountain streams and forests.
The cases were brought against Illinois Power Co. and Ohio Edison Co. The settlement agreement with Illinois Power will require the company to install $500 million worth of new pollution-control equipment and conduct other measures to decrease air pollution by more than 54,000 tons per year. The agreement with Ohio Edison, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp., will provide pollution controls and other measures to
decrease air pollution by more than 212,000 tons per year and is expected to cost $1.1 billion between now and 2012. This is the largest such settlement to date.
According to Webb, the Illinois Power plant in Baldwin, Ill., “was the largest single source of sulfur emissions in the United States, producing about one-and-one-half times the emissions of the next largest source and much more by itself than all the sources in Virginia combined.”
Webb said many other experts from a variety of organizations also testified in the cases, and the combined evidence that the companies had contributed greatly to environmental degradation resulted in their agreement to settle and install the necessary pollution-control equipment required by the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments.
“It’s not a mistake to consider these important settlements to be one of the benefits of our collective long-term monitoring and research,” Webb said.
U.Va. researchers have been studying and monitoring dozens of mountain streams in Virginia and throughout the central Appalachian region for 25 years. Their studies show that only about 50 percent of Virginia’s native trout streams are unimpaired by acidification, down from about 80 percent before the start of the Industrial Age in the mid-1800s.
Under air pollution control regulations currently in effect, the decline is projected to continue, and only about 40 percent of Virginia’s native trout streams will be unimpaired by the midpoint of this century.
Webb said that experts on both sides of the two recent cases agreed that acid deposition had caused harm to native trout streams. Webb also said that the two recent settlements are a step in the right direction toward improving the health of streams and forests in Virginia.