EPA coal requirements cause other problems

Stacks emit steam at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point of Rocks, Wyoming.

Stacey Vanek Smith: The Environmental Protection Agency is getting tough on coal power plants. A new rule requires a drop in Sulfur Dioxide emissions of more than 70 percent by 2014.

Dan Bobkoff of Midwest reporting project Changing Gears has that story.


Dan Bobkoff: Remember acid rain? We don't hear as much about it anymore because regulations force coal power plants to clean up their smoke stacks. The weapon? So-called scrubbers that stop stuff like sulfur dioxide from seeping into the air. A few years ago, the industry largely switched to a new stainless steel design.

Bill Sigmon: This was supposed to be the best alloy available at that point in time; the most cost-effective alloy at that point in time.

Bill Sigmon is a senior vice president at American Electric Power. To meet EPA requirements, the Ohio company has been installing scrubbers at many of its coal plants, costing as much as $700 million each. They're supposed to last 25 years, but very quickly, Sigmon and his team started noticing some serious corrosion.

Sigmon: It's almost like a laser torch or something that's eating the metal itself.

So, the industry called on its scientists at the Electric Power Research Institute to investigate. John Shingledecker is the senior project manager.

John Shingledecker: For utilities that have built in the last 10 years, it's a very big deal. It's costing a lot more in the short term than they anticipated.

American Electric Power alone has already spent $30 million putting on protective coatings to treat the corrosion. Mehrooz Zamazadeh says the industry should have done its homework. He's general manager of Matco Services, a corrosion analysis firm.

Mehrooz Zamazadeh: Stainless steels are in general corrosion-resistant. However, like everything else in life, they have their limits.

All this comes as those new EPA rules force utilities to make decisions: invest in coal scrubbers, shut the plants down or replace them with something else like natural gas.

Sandy Buchanan is with the advocacy group Ohio Citizen Action.

Sandy Buchanan: The question of whether they're going to install the scrubbers, the question of whether they're going to fix the scrubbers -- every penny of that is going to passed along to consumers in one form or another.

Oh, and by the way, the cost of a new natural gas plant, about the same as one new scrubber.

In Cleveland, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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