Waterford area in violation of sulfur dioxide

An EPA designation that Waterford Township in Washington County and Center Township in Morgan County failed to meet revised standards for the presence of sulfur dioxide in the air may not require much, if any, action on the part of state and local authorities.

That’s because the primary source of the emissions – American Electric Power’s Muskingum River Power Plant in Beverly – is shutting down in less than two years.

“It is going to become a moot point, I think,” Washington County Commission President David White said. “The last of the coal-fired plants in our area (is) going to close.”

That closing, by the end of 2015, will result in the loss of 95 jobs and millions of property tax dollars to the county and local schools.

“It’s not a very silver lining as far as I’m concerned,” White said.

In order to comply with federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including new sulfur dioxide standards, AEP Ohio announced plans to close four of the five units at its Muskingum River plant. There was talk of converting the remaining unit to burn natural gas instead of coal, but the company said in July that it had determined doing that and complying with other regulations would be cost-prohibitive.

Washington County Health Commissioner Dick Wittberg said he believes power plants should reduce their environmental footprint, but he’s sorry to see the local plant closing.

“I hate to see the jobs go,” he said. “I wish they could have converted some of them over to natural gas. … That’s just a hard, hard hit.”

According to the EPA, short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide, from five minutes to 24 hours, is linked with increased asthma symptoms, emergency room and hospital admissions (especially for at-risk groups like children and the elderly) and other respiratory effects. Sulfur dioxide emissions can also result in higher concentration of other sulfur oxides, which form small particles that can cause or worsen respiratory disease like emphysema and bronchitis and aggravate existing heart disease.

Last week, the EPA identified more than two dozen areas in 16 states that did not meet the new standard for sulfur dioxide pollution – no more than 75 parts per billion for a one-hour period, based on a three-year average.

Center and Waterford townships made the list based on 2009-2011 data supplied by the Ohio EPA from an air monitor in Hackney in Morgan County that showed a sulfur dioxide level of 180 parts per billion.

EPA documents identify four sources of sulfur dioxide in the vicinity, all in Waterford Township. The Muskingum River plant is by far the largest, emitting more than 133,000 tons in 2008, 10 times as much sulfur dioxide as the next, Globe Metallurgical, according to the EPA reports.

Tammy Ridout, manager for media relations and policy communications for AEP, said the plant’s emissions have declined since then.

“The (sulfur dioxide) emissions from Muskingum River Plant already have dropped significantly over the past five years because the plant has not been running as much due to the economic downturn and low natural gas prices,” she said.

Duke Energy’s Beverly facility and AEP/Columbus Southern’s Waterford plant were the others mentioned, with less than one ton a year each in sulfur dioxide emissions.

The EPA says affected areas must develop and implement plans to meet the standards. Wittberg said the county health department hasn’t been contacted about the issue, but he doubts there will need to be any action taken since the power plant is closing.

The Ohio EPA will develop computer models to determine how best to reduce the emissions to an acceptable level, agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. The closure of the Muskingum River plant will be taken into account, but it’s too early to say whether that would do the job, she said.

“If that’s not enough, then we would work with the other sources to lower their emissions,” Griesmer said.

That would likely take the form of a directive stating by how much emissions should be reduced, she said. The company would then determine what method to use to do that.