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TECO will cut emission rate early

Florida might someday have more fish in its waters and fewer sick people in its hospitals, experts hope, all because the state's power companies are being forced to clean up their acts.

The rules do not take effect until 2000, when new provisions of the federal Clean Air Act kick in. The new requirements call for industries to regulate the amount of airborne pollutants they emit.

But one utility says it's getting a head start.

Tampa Electric Co. officials announced Wednesday they would voluntarily begin curbing harmful emissions of nitrogen oxide, a compound produced when fuels are burned. It can cause respiratory ailments in humans and environmental damage when it interacts with water.

"This is a significant milestone in our efforts to be a company that pro-actively manages the environment we live in," Tampa Electric president Keith Surgenor said at a news conference. "This is another step in being good environmental partners."

The proposal calls for the company to maintain current nitrogen oxide levels through 1998, then cut output by 5 percent in 1999 and 2000.

It calls for the elimination of almost 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxide from the atmosphere each year beginning in 2000.

The process, made possible by new combinations of boiler temperatures and fuel mixes that TECO engineers developed, is expected to cost about $3.5-million each year, said Hugh Smith, director of fuel and environmental services.

The company says it will not pass the cost on to consumers.

"This is a win-win situation," said Iwan Choronenko, air management director for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. "And you can believe me. I'm the guy who's responsible for your air quality."

High levels of nitrogen in the air can cause rampant breeding of microalgae in the water, which throws off the ecosystem's balance.

Algae blocks sunlight from reaching plants at the bottom of the water. Those plants then die, eliminating a vital nursery environment for baitfish. Finally, larger fish such as snook and redfish, staple catches to many area anglers, die out.

"Anything that'll help protect fish around here is a good idea," St. Petersburg resident and recreational fisherman Joe Fillipski said of the TECO initiative.

Also benefiting will be the estimated 500,000 Floridians who suffer from asthma, a group made up largely of elderly people and children. Asthmatics are particularly susceptible to particles such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, another byproduct of energy production that TECO plans to have curbed considerably by 2000.

But some on Wednesday questioned whether the electric company could reduce pollutant levels as much as it claimed. Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, an environmental watchdog agency, said he had heard similar promises from TECO before that yielded few results.

"TECO hasn't put its money where its mouth is in the past," he said from Washington, D.C. "It begs the question of whether these claims are all just smoke and mirrors."