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Air law called no "ultimate solution'

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Acid rain and other airborne pollution will remain so long as coal and oil fuel Florida's power plants and cars, but the new Clean Air Act revisions will help clean the skies a bit. Steve Smallwood, director of Florida's air quality program, gave that assessment Wednesday at the conclusion of a three-day conference on the effects of acid deposition into the state's environment.

Florida's electrical customers will end up paying more to have cleaner air, but even in the heavy coal-burning states of the Midwest, proposed acid rain controls for utilities would add only $2.80 per month for an average consumer in Ohio and $2.70 in Indiana, according to an analysis issued Wednesday by one environmental group.

After years of political wrangling, Congress could approve the new federal clean air revisions as early as today. If enacted as written earlier this week, the revisions would target electrical generating plants, which produce up to 80 percent of the emissions generating the sulfuric acid found in Florida's air and water.

But Florida shouldn't stop there, Smallwood said. "Another thing we need to do that's very important is take the long view and realize that the things we're doing now like putting (air) scrubbers on (power plants) or using low-sulphur fuel are probably just buying us another 10 or 15 years.

"It's not the ultimate solution. We need to be looking at ways to improve conservation, energy efficiency and generally lower our dependence on fossil fuels," said Smallwood, director of the state Department of Environmental Regulation's air resource management division.

At best, he estimated, roughly 25 percent of the 800,000 tons of acid-making chemicals power plants send into Florida skies yearly will be removed by the end of the decade.

"While it might not entirely eliminate all the effects that we're seeing, it certainly would make the situation better," Smallwood told the scientists, utility representatives and environmentalists attending the Tampa conference.

He also warned the group that acid rain was just one part of a much larger problem: "We need to not just look at acidity, but also at metals and other constituents that are falling out of the air. There are other related problems that we don't have a real good handle on."

Several researchers and government officials reported during the conference that water samples taken from some of Florida's lakes and streams were beginning to contain mercury, lead, arsenic and other potential threats to human and environmental health.

While earlier versions of the Clean Air Act revisions would have required utilities to remove mercury and other metals from their plant emissions, a compromise version approved by a congressional negotiating committee earlier this week left that provision out, saving an estimated $5-billion annually.

Despite the compromise, environmentalists and utility groups vary wildly in their estimates of just how much the enactment of the federal clean air legislation will cost.

Before this week, the White House had estimated that the separate versions of the legislation that had passed the House and Senate would cost about $12-billion by 1995 and about $27-billion by 2005.

But one environmental group, the National Clean Air Coalition, predicted Wednesday that the revisions could be enacted for no more than about $10-billion yearly. By 1995, as the legislation's provisions take hold, the average household would be paying about $8.40 a month. By the year 2005 _ 15 years from now _ costs are projected to rise to $20 monthly, still far less than the average American household spends today on cigarettes and alcohol.

At the other end of the spectrum, utility groups have put the yearly price higher than $90-billion while suggesting that Americans will have to go without other things or risk permanent economic problems in order to pay the stiff price for cleaner skies.

_ Information from Scripps Howard News Service and Reuter was used in this report.