Crystal River coal plant among nation’s dirtiest

Crystal River coal plant among nation’s dirtiest

For the third year in a row, Progress Energy’s coal-burning plant in Crystal River has been named among the dirtiest power plants in the nation in a report issued Thursday by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.

Crystal River, which has four coal units in addition to a nuclear power generator, ranked among the top 50 polluters in its total output of four substances harmful to both public health and the environment: sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. The ranking is based on data reported to federal agencies by the utilities.

In nitrogen oxide emissions, which contribute to ground-level ozone that causes respiratory problems, the Crystal River facility was second only to a plant in New Mexico in total emissions, producing 38,754 tons of the pollutant last year.

The Citrus County plant, which burns 6-million tons of coal a year, also generated 17-million tons of upper atmosphere ozone-depleting carbon dioxide, 102,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory and cardiovascular problems and 520 pounds of highly toxic mercury.

“Crystal River is kind of a perennial,’’ said EIP’s director, Eric Schaeffer, who said the plant’s sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions have increased since last year’s study while mercury has remained the same.

With units dating from the 1960s and 1980s, Crystal River is one of the largest coal-burning plants in the country. It generates about half of the electricity used by Progress Energy’s 1.6-million Florida customers.

“And every one of them has air-conditioning,’’ said Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the utility. “The thing to remember is that Crystal River is a very large plant and because of that, every number associated with the plant is large because it’s directly related to the amount of fuel burnt in it.’’

Progress Energy Florida, which provides electricity for much of west-central Florida, is based in St. Petersburg. It is owned by Progress Energy in Raleigh, N.C.

Schaeffer said utilities always prefer to have their power plants judged on pollutants emitted per megawatt hour, rather than by total output. The EIP does such a ranking and by that criteria, the Crystal River facility ranks toward the middle of the nearly 400 plants evaluated nationwide.

But Schaeffer insisted that the environment doesn’t make “per megawatt hour†distinctions when it comes to pollution.

“It’s really the gross amount that affects people’s health and, in the case of carbon dioxide, affects the weather,’’ he said.

Using estimates by the White House Office of Management and Budget that a ton of sulfur dioxide emissions results in $7,000 a year in public health costs, Schaeffer said Crystal River’s sulfur dioxide emissions alone cost the public over $700-million.

“That compares to a cost of maybe $500 a ton to clean it up,’’ Schaeffer said. “But they’re not going to do it until they absolutely have to.’’

Thanks to the federal 1995 Clean Air Interstate Rule, however, Progress Energy must reduce emissions at Crystal River, as well as its plant at Anclote, which ranked 48th in nitrogen oxide, emissions per megawatt hour.

Progress Energy’s spokeswoman said scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and technology to cut NOx emissions will be installed on Crystal River’s two largest coal-burning units by 2009.

“We’ll reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 97 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent by 2009,’’ Jacobs said. “And as a benefit of those technologies, we’ll also be reducing mercury emissions by 80 percent.’’

Progress Energy’s Anclote plant, meanwhile, will switch to low-sulfur coal and natural gas and install low-nitrogen oxide burners.

“After all our controls are installed, in Florida the company will be reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by 60 percent, nitrogen oxide by 50 percent and mercury by 40 to 45 percent by 2010,’’ she said.

The only other Tampa Bay area power plant to rank among the top 50 worst polluters was Tampa Electric’s Big Bend plant. It ranked 21st in the nation in nitrogen oxide emissions per megawatt hour.

Under terms of a 1999 agreement with state and federal environmental agencies, however, Tampa Electric is making $1.5-billion worth of improvements to its plants by the end of the decade. As part of those changes, scrubber upgrades are planned to reduce sulfur dioxide and new technology is being installed to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at Big Bend.

The utility, part of Tampa’s TECO Energy, says that by 2010, the plant’s nitrogen oxide emissions will be down 85 percent and sulfur dioxide emissions will be reduced 84 percent compared with 1998 levels.

The improvements can come none too soon, said Ilan Levin, EIP’s counsel, who said 4 percent of the nation’s power plants now account for 45 percent of the emissions.

“Even though some of these plants are starting to clean up their act, scores of large, old plants continue to foul the nation’s air,’’ Levin said. “We’re paying a high price for dirty electricity.’’

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