COLUMBIA -- Like 26 other states, South Carolina will have to curb air pollution that has for years blown across the state line from power plants and contaminated air in other parts of the country.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule this week intended to stop smog- and soot-forming pollutants in one state from lowering air quality in neighboring states. The rule has been on the table for much of the past decade, so many coal-fired power plants affected by the new regulations already have taken steps to limit pollution.
That's the case with SCE&G and Palmetto Electric Cooperative, according to representatives of the companies that power much of the Lowcountry, including Beaufort and Jasper counties.
But the final rule, developed under President Barack Obama, ensures all plants will follow through on reducing smog and soot pollution. And it is tougher than one put together by former President George W. Bush about six years ago.
Nationally, the air pollution rule will help prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths and stop hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks each year, according to the EPA. South Carolina also will see benefits for its residents, regulators say. In South Carolina, the rule could reduce some 900 premature deaths annually, the EPA said.
The rule limits sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from coal plants. These pollutants help form smog and soot particles that not only affect health, but lower visibility, particularly on hot summer days. The rule, to take effect next year, will cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels, while nitrogen oxides will be cut by more than half, the EPA estimates.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA's administrator, said her agency's action follows years of complaints by some states that power plants in other states were contaminating their air and making it hard to comply with pollution laws. She said it's only fair to level the playing field. Many states complaining were in the Northeast.
"We all know that pollution generated in one state or one community does not stop at the border or the city line," Jackson said. "Just because wind and weather will carry air pollution away from its source at a local power plant doesn't mean that pollution is no longer that plant's responsibility. It also doesn't mean that cross-state pollution is any less harmful to the communities it settles in, causing smog and leaving soot in the air people are breathing."
A map on the EPA's website shows that South Carolina power plants have contributed to lower air quality in the Atlanta area and in parts of Texas. The Palmetto State had previously been accused by North Carolina of polluting air in the Tarheel State. South Carolina is one of 27 eastern states contributing to lower air quality in other states.
The closest coal-fired plants to Beaufort and Jasper counties are the Cogen South Power Plant in North Charleston owned by SCANA, SCE&G's parent company, and the Canadys Station near Canadys owned by SCE&G, according to an online map provided by the watchdog group SourceWatch.
SCE&G and Santee Cooper, which sells electricity to Palmetto Electric, operate most of the coal-fired power plants in South Carolina and produce much of the pollution. Both utilities have installed scrubbers and other equipment to limit releases of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which contribute to smog and soot pollution.
Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for state-owned Santee Cooper, said a recent rate increase reflected the higher costs of installing pollution control equipment at the company's largest power plants. Gore said Santee Cooper has spent more than $300 million on scrubbers and other pollution control equipment at the two most recently built units at its Cross generating station.
"We don't think it's going to have any impact on us now because we've been preparing for this for quite a while," Gore said. "Everything we've brought on line in terms of generation over the past decade or more has scrubbers and other environmental control technology that address sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide."
As a result, the cost of compliance is already reflected in Palmetto Electric's rates, and it's CEO doesn't expect customers' bills to increase as a result of the new rules.
"It's going to be pretty much business as usual for us, and there's one reason for that -- Santee Cooper generates our power, and their plants already exceed regulations set by the EPA," CEO Tom Upshaw said. "They did that when they didn't have to."
SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said his company's executives were still examining the full impact of the regulation.
The company has spent some $750 million in recent years on scrubbers and other pollution control equipment at its major power plants, he said. The company has spent $73 million at its lower Richland County plant on equipment to cut nitrogen oxide and $283 million at the plant on equipment to reduce sulfur dioxide.
Gore said the new rule means Santee Cooper will have an allowance, or limit, on the amount of those pollutants it can release each year. The company expects to meet that allowance, she said. About 75 percent of the power generated by Santee Cooper comes from coal plants.
Gore and Yanity said some of their companies' older, smaller plants do not have the pollution control technology installed.
Editor Jeff Kidd contributed to this report.