Thanks to the Southern Environmental Law Center for providing much of the information below.
Ozone and particle pollution are the two primary types of air pollution that are plaguing the greater Birmingham Community and have been scientifically proven to worsen our health and shorten our lives. In addition, poor air quality is not good for our local economy either.
The vast majority of SO2 emissions (precursor to particle pollution) and more than half of the NOx emissions (precursor to both ozone and particle pollution) are emitted by the three, outdated coal-fired power plants surrounding our community. These plants include:
- The James Miller Plant in west Jefferson County, located on the Black Warrior River, built in 1978:
- The E. C. Gaston Plant in Shelby County on the Coosa River, built in 1960;
- The Gorgas Plant in Walker County also on the Black Warrior River, built in 1951
Why are the three power plants that surround our city producing so much pollution?
These old, outdated coal-fired power plants have been exempt from modern pollution controls due to a loophole in the Clean Air Act. Back in the 70s, driven by pressure from industry lobbyists, a “loophole” was created in the Clean Air Act by elected officials that benefited the coal and electricity industry greatly. Promising that they would soon be retired, many old coal-fired plants were exempt from requirements to install modern pollution controls, often referred to as the “grandfathered” plants.
Many power companies exploited this “grandfathered” status, kept their plants open, and increased their emissions significantly over the years. In 1999 the Department of Justice filed suit against some of them. In Alabama, there were illegal modifications made to five coal-fired power plants, emitting millions of tons of pollution in the process. Three of those plants surround the Birmingham area, and are spewing significantly more pollution than a plant that has modern day pollution controls. Most utilities have settled with EPA and have been forced to clean up. Alabama Power has settled on the James Miller Plant, and is having to make upgrades to clean up, but is still spending millions of dollars fighting relentlessly in the courts to avoid having to install modern day technology on the other two plants located around Birmingham – Gorgas and Gaston, and on two more plants outside of the Birmingham area – Barry plant located on the Mobile river in Bucks, Alabama, and the Greene County plant located on the Black Warrior River near Demopolis, Alabama.
One of the main precursors to form particle pollution is SO2, and the three outdated, coal-fired power plants that surround the Birmingham area are emitting thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide every year. If these power plants were equipped with modern day pollution control technology that was utilized to the fullest extent, these emissions could be reduced up to 90%. (See Figure 1 above)
Vehicles and power plants contribute the most NOx in the Birmingham area, a precursor to the formation of ozone.
During ozone season, emissions from the power plants account for 39% of the NOx. While pollution control devices are being installed at some of the plants, they are only required to be operational at full capacity at the James Miller Plant by 2012 due to a consent decree resulting from the EPA lawsuit. As mentioned earlier, Alabama Power is fighting making the upgrades at the other two plants in court. They are scheduled to go to trial in 2011.
In 2007, the three coal-fired power plants surrounding Birmingham emitted over 75% of the mercury released into the environment for Jefferson, Shelby and Walker counties. These plants also stand out nationally. All three ranked among the nation’s 30 dirtiest power plants for mercury emissions in 2007. The James Miller Plant, ranked #1 for emitting over 2,000 pounds (14% increase from 2006) of Mercury in the air. Gaston ranked 8th in the nation, and the Gorgas plant ranked 28th. The 2009 report just came out, and the good news is the James Miller Plant is now ranked 7th in the nation as opposed to 1st for Mercury emissions. Gaston also improved its emissions and is now ranked 16th. Gorgas however increased its emissions and is now ranked 21st.
Improvements being made, but not enough to bring our air to healthy levels
Alabama Power has spent millions on pollution controls for some of the boilers at these facilities, which can reduce SO2 and NOx emissions considerably. Our current state regulations do not require Alabama Power to run these pollution controls full-time. In addition, there are still boilers that are using outdated pollution control technology.
If the state regulations remain the same, we can assume that after all the pollution controls are installed (2012 is the completion date), the three plants will still account for 89% of SO2 emissions and 39% of the NOx emissions for Birmingham.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was required to develop a plan, called the State Implementation Plan (SIP) when Birmingham was designated as non-attainment for particle pollution. This plan lays out what measures will be taken to bring Birmingham back into compliance with the health standard for particle pollution. Submitted to EPA in March of 2009, the SIP does not require any concrete mandates on emission controls at any of the three coal-fired power plants surrounding our city.
Pollution from vehicles
The second largest contributor to NOx emissions, the precursor to the formation of ozone, is vehicles. (see Figure 3) Alabama Partners for Clean Air (APCA) is an established organization focused on reducing emissions from mobile sources. APCA has comprehensive programs in place, such as Commute Smart, vehicle inspection programs and educational efforts all designed to lower the emissions from vehicles, which contributes to the formation of ozone. We can all assist in lessening our impact that vehicles have on our area’s pollution problems.
Pollution from other stationary sources
While the out-dated coal fired power plants are contributing the most to the Birmingham area’s particle and ozone pollution, there are numerous other sources polluting more locally in neighborhoods and communities in the city of Birmingham. In fact, Birmingham was recently listed as the #1 city whose poor and minority populations receive the largest amount of toxic pollution relative to their proportion of the population. Combined with the pollution that the entire region is breathing, our low income and minority communities in the city of Birmingham have even more pollution to deal with, mainly in the form of harmful toxics. See environmental justice.