Testimony of Scott Johnstone, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Senator Jeffords and members of the Committee, it is my pleasure to appear before you today to offer testimony in support of comprehensive efforts to reduce power plant emissions and in particular S. 556.
We in the Northeast live downwind from virtually the rest of the nation. In fact, a quick look at a map showing airflows will tell you that we are, in effect, the tailpipe of the nation. In addition to the harm caused by pollution emitted within our region, pollutants from many of our nation=s most industrialized regions find their way to our corner of the country. Every year brings more and more evidence that air pollutants of all types harm the health of our children, our seniors, those who suffer from respiratory diseases, and our natural environment.
The 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments that you and your Congressional colleagues crafted a quarter century ago was a landmark piece of environmental legislation The amendments required installation of state-of-the-art pollution control equipment on all new sources and included provisions intended to reduce pollution concentrations in all areas of the nation to levels where adverse human health effects would be eliminated.
Despite the Clean Air Act=s original intent and subsequent amendments to the law, recent reports document many serious problems related to poor air quality, including:
Ongoing acidification of lakes and ponds;
Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere; and
Health advisories in many states recommending limited consumption of fish due to widespread mercury contamination.
I believe the kind of comprehensive four-pollutant bill before your Committee, focusing specifically on emissions from existing electric utilities, must be a critical component of any new Clean Air legislation. While protecting public health and the environment must be our singular goal, we recognize that promoting cost-effective approaches that inspire innovation is critical to achieving this goal. The key to comprehensive and cost-effective public health and environmental protection is the establishment of firm tonnage emission caps for all pollutants of concern.
As we enter the 21st Century, the necessity for legislation such as S. 556 is apparent partly because of an unanticipated weakness in the existing Clean Air Act and also because of new scientific evidence. The admirable goals expressed in the original Clean Air Act were believed to be completely achievable within a time frame of several years. Congress reasonably assumed that many of the largest and arguably dirtiest electric power plants, typically coal-fired, were nearing the end of their useful economic life, and therefore exempted them. Unfortunately, our nation=s air quality continues to be adversely affected by these old power plants.
Electric utilities account for approximately one-third of all human-made emissions of mercury and particulate matter in our nation, one-third of all emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, and nearly three-quarters of all U.S. emissions of sulfur dioxide. These grandfathered power plants account for more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide, three-quarters of the nitrogen oxides and mercury, and 80 percent of the sulfur dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel-burning utilities in the United States today.
There is no compelling reason to continue exempting high-emitting power plants from applying proven technology such as flue-gas emission control devices.
Although I am secretary of a natural resources agency, I want to note both human health problems and environmental damage caused by large power plants upwind from us. We know incidences of asthma in our nation have increased by more than 50 percent since 1980, and the Center for Disease Control now estimates that nearly 5 million American children suffer from asthma.
In terms of continuing environmental damage, while we have made considerable progress reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions since 1990, recent findings from the Hubbard Brook Research Forest demonstrate that much work remains. Fifteen percent of the lakes in New England and more than 40 percent of lakes in New York=s Adirondacks are either chronically acidic or seasonally acidic. Because of acid deposition, 346 Adirondack lakes B one-quarter of all surveyed B no longer support fish. And in Vermont, we have identified 35 lakes as sensitive or impaired by acidification.
In addition, on Camels Hump, Vermont=s fourth tallest peak, where researchers have studied the impact of acid rain for decades, the red spruce canopy has been extensively damaged, and new growth red spruce is showing signs of acidic damage.
New air pollution concerns have also emerged in the past three decades, and they too are linked directly to electric power plants, particularly those grandfathered by the Clean air Act. These are issues with perhaps even more significant adverse implications for the health and well-being of our citizens and our environment. I=ll mention two here.
First, research such as the analysis released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly documents that the Earth=s atmosphere has heated up during the past half century due to human-made air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, which is produced during the combustion of fossil fuels. The likely results of global climate change include widespread coastal flooding, immense changes in habitat for plants and animals, an increase in weather-related natural disasters, and, in Vermont, possible crippling impacts on our ski areas and maple sugar industry -- potential devastating blows to our state=s economy and culture. Furthermore, we know that the Kyoto Protocol, while a starting point which this country should embrace, falls well short of reducing emissions to a level that even stabilizes, much less reverses, global climate change.
Second, mercury emitted in trace amounts by burning coal and other fossil fuels has found its way into fish throughout the Northeast. Due to mercury=s ability to accumulate through the food chain, all six New England states, New York, and New Jersey have issued fish consumption advisories of some kind. These advisories are designed to protect the general population and sensitive sub-populations, particularly pregnant women and children younger than six. Computer modeling conducted for the Northeast States and Eastern Canadian Provinces Mercury Study indicates that 30 percent or more of the mercury deposited in the Northeast originates from sources outside of the region.
As a first step in addressing these many problems, I urge you to correct the faulty assumptions of 25 years ago and remove the exemptions that have allowed large plants to emit massive amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere B and ultimately into the lungs of our citizens.
Furthermore, power plants emit significant amounts of other toxic compounds and fine particulate matter. In order to avoid potentially conflicting requirements between existing and new power plant regulation, a truly comprehensive approach in new legislation should define requirements for utility power plants specific to all air pollutants emitted.
I encourage Committee members to craft a national policy that recognizes that for every measure of pollution reduction there is a benefit to society. This notion is embodied in the Bi-National Toxic Strategy, which our government has entered into with Canada. This agreement states that for some pollutants the goal must be Athe virtual elimination of the contaminant.@ Power plant emissions contribute to many of the major environmental issues before us: mercury, fine particulate matter, global climate change, and airborne toxins. To address these threats to our environment and health, we must have a sound goal and sound policy direction. Virtual elimination is the right goal B a long-term goal B and new technologies and renewable sources of energy will provide the solutions for achieving this goal.
I urge you to adopt legislation that, first, imposes mandatory output-based emission reductions for all currently grandfathered power plants as expeditiously as possible and, second, incorporates the concept of progressive reduction beyond currently identified achievable limits. We have learned from experience that thresholds for individual components of air pollution all too often need to be revised as we learn more about the health effects of various pollutants, particularly toxics, which argues for adopting a goal of virtual elimination.
Several states in the Northeast are working independently and collectively to adopt multi-pollutant regulatory controls on the power sector. These efforts build upon the progress we have made to cap nitrogen oxide emissions. The New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers recently conducted a workshop to begin a collaborative approach toward addressing global climate change. This association has already outlined a framework for developing regional approaches to reduce mercury deposition and regional haze. Our region is also working together through NESCAUM to develop detailed policy recommendations and implementation strategies for multi-pollutant legislation, and I look forward to sharing these with the Committee later this summer.
State and regional approaches, however, are no substitute for a sound, comprehensive national policy, which is why I=m here today speaking in favor of this legislation. The written testimony which I have submitted contains additional information relevant to S. 556.
In closing, I want to thank Senator Jeffords and Committee members for this opportunity to testify. As you know far better than I do, Senator Jeffords, Vermont is a special place of outstanding natural beauty and with a citizenry imbued with a strong environmental ethic. While nature dictates that winds blow from west to east across the North American continent, it is within the control of Congress to decide if our corner of the country will remain the tailpipe of the nation.
From New England Governors/Eastern Canadian Premiers Action Plan, 1998:
Mercury levels in freshwater fish have been monitored in the northeast U.S. region since the 1970s. The results of these monitoring programs indicate that levels of mercury significantly exceed acceptable values in fish species from certain water bodies in the region. This information has led public health officials in the northeast U.S. to issue advisories recommending that people limit their consumption of potentially contaminated fish.
Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and children are at particular risk because the developing nervous system of fetuses and children are very sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury. Wildlife in the region may also be adversely affected, as high levels of mercury have been measured in fish-eating birds, such as loons and eagles.
There are many sources of mercury in the environment. Although natural sources of mercury exist, recent research suggests that background concentrations of this metal in the atmosphere and sediments have increased by a factor of two to five since pre-industrial times. This suggests that anthropogenic sources have significantly increased mercury levels in the environment.
Much of the mercury entering the waters of the region settles from the air or is deposited in rain or other precipitation. The mercury in the air originates from many sources both within and outside of the region. In the ambient air, mercury levels are not dangerous; it is the cumulative amount of mercury deposited to water bodies and its subsequent chemical transformation to methyl-mercury, that creates problems. Fish absorb and retain methyl-mercury, causing it to bioaccumulate until it is concentrated up to millions of times above the level in the surrounding water, particularly in older, predatory fish. Ingestion of contaminated fish is the primary pathway of human exposure to methyl-mercury.
Rates of mercury deposition are estimated to be higher in the northeastern U.S. relative to most other parts of the country. This situation is in part due to the existence of significant sources of mercury within the region. There is also strong evidence showing that, similar to other pollutants, airborne mercury emitted by upwind sources is transported by prevailing winds into the region.
Two other factors also thought to exacerbate the mercury problem in the region include (1) the acidified condition of many waters of the region, brought on by excess acid deposition, is associated with higher levels of methyl-mercury in fish in impacted lakes; and (2) elevated summertime levels of tropospheric ozone exacerbate the conversion of elemental mercury in the atmosphere to chemical forms that are more susceptible to deposition.
Analyses suggest that a wide array of sources of mercury emissions contribute to overall deposition in the region. Municipal waste combustors are currently the largest emission source sector in the northeast states; utility and industrial boilers are the largest source sector in the remainder of the U.S., primarily from the combustion of coal; and non-ferrous metal production, (i.e. nickel, aluminum), is the major source of airborne mercury emissions in eastern Canada.
Computer modeling conducted for the Northeast States and Eastern Canadian Provinces Mercury Study (NESCAUM/NEWMOA/NEIWPCC/EMAN 1998) indicates that 30 percent or more of the mercury deposited in the Northeast originates from sources outside of the region. Because of the transboundary nature of mercury pollution, no single state or province will be able to solve its mercury problem alone. Concerted and coordinated regional efforts are needed. Ultimately, national and international efforts will be required to address transboundary mercury emissions, particularly from the utility sector.
CO2 / Global Warming
From the most recent Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is the Third Assessment Report, 2001:
AGlobally, it is very likely that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year in the instrumental record, since 1861.@
A[T]he increase in temperature in the 20th Century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years. It is also likely that, in the Northern Hemisphere, the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year.@
AOn average, between 1950 and 1993, night-time daily minimum air temperatures over land increased by about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. This is about twice the rate of increase in daytime daily maximum air temperatures (0.1 degrees C per decade). This has lengthened the freeze-free season in many mid- and high latitude regions.@
AIt is very likely that precipitation has increased by 0.5 to 1.0 percent per decade in the 20th Century over most mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere continents.@
AIn the mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere over the latter half of the 20th Century, it is likely that there has been a 2 to 4 percent increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events.@
AIt is likely that there has been a 2 percent increase in cloud cover over mid- to high latitude land areas during the 20th Century.@
ASince 1950, it is very likely that there has been a reduction in the frequency of extreme low temperatures, with a smaller increase in the frequency of extreme high temperatures.@
From EPA 236-F-98-007aa, AClimate Change and Vermont,@ 1998:
AOver the last century, the average temperature in Burlington, Vermont, has increased 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation has increased by up to 5 percent in many parts of the state.@
A[B]ased on projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and results from the United Kingdom Hadley Centre climate model (HadCM2), a model that accounts for both greenhouse gases and aerosols, by 2100 temperatures in Vermont could increase by 4 degrees Fahrenheit (with a range of 2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) in spring and 5 degrees Fahrenheit (with a range of 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit) in the other seasons. Precipitation is projected to show little change in spring, to increase by about 10 percent in summer and fall (with a range of 5 to 20 percent), and by 30 percent (with a range of 10 to 50 percent) in winter.@
AThe amount of precipitation on extreme wet or snowy days in winter is likely to increase. The frequency of extreme hot days in summer would increase because of the general warming trend. Although it is not clear how the severity of storms might be affected, an increase in the frequency and intensity of winter storms is possible.@
Based on these modeled projections, EPA estimates the following possible effects:
Although Vermont is in compliance with current air quality standards, increased temperatures could make remaining in compliance more difficult (re: ozone).
Warmer temperatures could increase the incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases in Vermont, because populations of ticks, and their rodent hosts, could increase under warmer temperatures and increased vegetation.
A warmer climate would lead to an earlier snowmelt, resulting in higher streamflows in winter and spring and lower streamflows in summer and fall. Warmer summer temperatures and longer summers could exacerbate water quality problems such as excessive growth of aquatic weeds in Lake Champlain and other lakes. Warmer water temperatures also reduce dissolved oxygen levels, adversely affecting fish habitat, and lower summer streamflows could reduce the ability of rivers to assimilate waste. Changes in timing and accumulation of snow could affect skiing in positive and negative ways, such as the timing and length of season and snow depth.
In Vermont, very few of the farmed acres are irrigated. The major crops in the state are silage and hay. Yields of these crops and pasture could fall by as much as 39 percent under severe conditions as temperatures rise beyond the tolerance levels of the crop and are combined with increased stress from decreased soil moisture.
Trees and forests are adapted to specific climate conditions, and as climate warms, forests will change. These changes could include changes in species composition, geographic range, and health and productivity. Although the extent of forested areas in Vermont could change little because of climate change, a warmer climate could change the character of those forests. Maple-dominated hardwood forests could give way to forests with more oaks and conifers, species more tolerant of higher temperatures.
Across the state, as much as 30 to 60 percent of the hardwood forests could be replaced by warmer-climate forests with a mix of pines and hardwoods. The extent and density of the spruce and fir forests at higher altitudes and in the north, which support a large variety of songbirds, also could be reduced. The change in temperature also could cause maple sap to run earlier and more quickly, thus shortening the length of the season for gathering sap.
From AClimate Change, New Directions for the Northeast,@ a report produced at a workshop sponsored by the Governors of the New England States and the Premiers of the Eastern Canadian Provinces:
Global climate change modeling projects a shifting of climate zones northward in the Northern Hemisphere. The temperature projections for the 21st century include greater warming in nighttime temperatures and in seasonal minimum temperatures. These variations could be moderated in coastal areas of the Northeast Region, by the influence of the ocean. A key issue for the Northeast Region could be changes in the timing of seasonal changes, such as earlier onset of spring snowmelt or later frosts.
Animals need to adapt to the effects of climate change even if the forest remains intact. Changes in winter precipitation can have significant consequences for population balances of species like deer and their predators. If forest habitat for wildlife is lost, regional biodiversity will likely be reduced as well.
The National Assessment Synthesis Report states for the Northeast that climate change is likely to decrease the number of some types of weather extremes, while increasing others. Over the coming century, winter snowfall and periods of extreme cold are projected to decrease. In contrast, heavy precipitation events have been increasing and warming would continue this trend. Heat waves and associated drought conditions may be both very much more frequent and more intense in the summer months.