Bad Air in Delaware–an intractable but not hopeless problem

Information, and actions you can take.

When my family moved to the Wilmington suburbs in 1960, we experienced months of colds and other health problems. I remember my Mother saying something like “nobody told us it’s not healthy to leave the windows open.” Jake Kreshtool, founder of Delaware Citizens for Clean Air and the dean of Delaware environmental activists, got into the game in the early 60s to protect his family from intolerable fumes and odors coming from an asphalt shingle plant. Kreshtool says the air was often so murky that one could not see clear shadows on a sidewalk.

When the wind blew from certain directions, much of Delaware experienced a pervasive stench coming from DuPont’s Chambers Works, across the Delaware River in Salem County, New Jersey. Sussex County suffered from the massive emissions of the Indian River Power Plant, and from various industrial facilities and agricultural operations. It seems almost unnecessary to mention the Delaware City Refinery, one of the dirtiest in the world. The Delaware Coastal Zone Act, presently under attack, was passed largely to keep another refinery out of Delaware. The Delaware Solid Waste Authority, over the years, has often “stunk people out of their homes.” DuPont’s Edge Moor titanium dioxide plant belched out all sorts of pollutants. I recall driving by the plant one night on I-95, passing through clouds of noxious fumes, and later finding a thick, semi-opaque yellow film, hard to scrub off, on the headlights of my Corvair. The Phoenix Steel plant–and various successors–was notorious for covering nearby neighborhoods with dust.

Any long-time resident of Delaware could tell these sorts of tales. Nobody should be surprised at Delaware’s longtime high rates of cancer and other pollution-related diseases. Yet, we seldom connect the dots in making public policy.

Over fifty-five years have gone by since my first exposure to Delaware’s polluted air. How much progress have we made? Objectively, the air is cleaner–the federal Clean Air Act, weakly enforced as it mostly is, has made a difference. You can see your shadow on the sidewalk. Objectively, the air is still far from clean enough: Delaware is officially in “non-attainment” of two [correction:  one]  major National Ambient Air Quality Standards.–ozone and fine particles. Delaware environmental regulators still issue permits for facilities that are sure to cause problems, such as the big composting yard in South Wilmington, or for the reopening of the Delaware City Refinery.

Environment advocates are still harassed, and treated with contempt, while the big polluters sit on top of the social, economic, and political heap. A state run as a safe harbor for corporate misconduct is not likely to be an environmental leader. Recent sessions of the General Assembly have largely disregarded environmental concerns, and Governor Markell, in my observation, has mostly been a negative influence.

During this summer of 2016, about one day in three has been forecast to be a Code Yellow bad air day for either ozone or particles. As I write this, for example, August 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 23rd have been forecast to be Code Yellow for either ozone or particles. Three of these days have been forecast to be Code Yellow for both ozone and particles. For none of these days will an air quality alert be issued. To these chemical pollutants, add the high heat, high humidity, and high levels of allergens (pollen) common in Delaware, because these health stressors are somewhat cumulative in effect, and it is not surprising that many Delawareans suffer.

But, in truth, Delaware is not master of its own air quality fate. Consider the context. Air in North America generally moves from West to East., so to some extent Delaware, on the East Coast, receives a cumulative dose of air pollutants emitted all across the continent. Delaware is immediately downwind of many power plants in bad-neighbor states, and the plume of dirty air from the Baltimore Washington complex. This latter is a key cause of bad air and crop damage in Sussex County. It has been claimed, and may be the case, that even if there were no air emissions in Delaware itself, enough bad stuff would blow into the state to violate federal standards. So air quality is not a problem that Delaware, even with better motivation, could solve by itself. Nothing can make air pollution respect political boundaries.

This, of course, is what we have federal environmental laws and a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But EPA, like its state counterparts such as the DNREC, often seems passive, ineffectual, and self-serving. EPA often delegates planning, permitting, and enforcement responsibilities to states and then fails to ensure that the states carry them out. The unity and political clout of the “environmental community” has weakened steadily. (Many regulators and advocates are dedicated, and do what they can, sometimes at personal sacrifice.)

Federal air quality standards are determined as much by politics as science. They are always too lax and in a very gradual process of tightening. So complying with them is aiming at a moving target.

The good news is that the DNREC Division of Air Quality has recently taken some valuable action against out-of-state pollution blowing into Delaware. DNREC officials, working with a multi-state body called the Ozone Transport Commission, have begun to identify the upwind power plants having the greatest impact on Delaware, and are taking legal action against them.

From a July 8, 2016 DNREC press release:

“The second action taken this week by DNREC and Delaware is aimed specifically at the Brunner Island Power plant near York, Pa. Delaware filed a petition with the EPA under Section 126 of the Clean Air Act asking EPA to make a finding that emissions from the Brunner Island plant, with its three coal-fired electric generating units, significantly contributes to unhealthy ozone concentrations in Delaware.”

“Delaware’s petition is based on computer modeling that demonstrates that emissions from Brunner Island’s coal-fired units contribute heavily to ozone levels in Delaware that exceed the 2008 and 2015 8-hour ozone standards. EPA’s granting of the petition would require the Brunner Island facility to promptly reduce the emissions that significantly contribute to ozone exceedances in Delaware.”

“Brunner Island’s three coal-fired electric generating units are not currently equipped with modern nitrogen oxide (NOx) controls similar to those installed starting in 2010 at Delaware’s NRG Indian River facility near Millsboro – which have reduced the annual NOx emissions rate by upwards of 80 percent from the last remaining coal-fired electric generating unit at that facility, according to DNREC statistics. Modern NOx controls, such as selective catalytic reduction (SCR), have been in commercial service at coal-fired electric generating units for decades, and have the ability to significantly reduce NOx emissions from coal-fired combustion sources.”

An August 9, 2016 DNREC press release says:

“Delaware has again taken action to reduce air quality and public health impacts from upwind sources through a DNREC petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to find that the Harrison Power Station near Haywood, W. Va., with its three large coal-fired electric generating units, is emitting air pollutants in violation of the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) and National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for harmful ozone.”

“Computer modeling, using EPA-approved methods, has confirmed that both the Brunner Island and Harrison power plants produce air pollution that carries into Delaware, resulting in exceedances of the health-based ozone air quality standard. Exceedances of the ozone NAAQS contribute to increasing incidents of asthma, respiratory disease and other health problems for Delawareans.”

“…the Harrison Power Station is outfitted with very effective post-combustion NOx emissions controls, but that the facility does not consistently operate those controls.”

“DNREC’s latest petition reiterates that problematic ozone is not of Delaware’s doing – that all emission sources within the state are “well controlled” but that outside sources skew the state’s air quality readings and bring with them debilitating health issues.”

Like most all press releases, these are self-serving. It is most certainly NOT true that air pollution in Delaware is “well controlled” and all our problems come from outside the state. But note DNREC’s statements about one power plant that doesn’t have basic emission controls and another that has them but doesn’t always operate them. And this, presumably, with the knowledge and consent of Pennsylvania and West Virginia regulators and the USEPA.

Delaware filed a similar “Sec. 126” petition in 2008, but it was not focused on a specific power plant.  EPA never took meaningful action.

The State of Connecticut filed a similar petition aimed at Brunner Island on June 1, 2016, which contains a lot of interesting detail.  If you are curious about how emission from one power plant among dozens can be fingered, take a look here.

EPA has given itself an extension until March 5, 2017 to respond to Delaware’s Brunner Island petition. There will probably be a similar self-granted extension for the West Virginia petition.

Green Delaware called PA regulators, WV regulators, and EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin for response. Only West Virginia responded. WV Division of Air Quality Director William F. Durham noted that the Harrison Power Station “could have done a better job of reducing emissions.”  Our understanding is that West Virginia regulators tried to apply a stricter permit to this plant but the owners resisted in court.

ACTION:

DNREC is doing the right thing here and should be encouraged to pursue it aggressively. Let Gov. Markell know your views: jack.markell@state.de.us, (302) 577-3210 (Wilmington office), (302) 739-5656 (Governor’s House, Dover)

EPA needs prodding to take these petitions seriously and act on them: EPA administrator Gina McCarthy: McCarthy.gina@Epa.gov, (202) 564-4700

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