(02/18/2008)
'Blue Haze' Inquiry Uncovers Discrepancies

- The John Amos Power Plant has released far more sulfuric acid into Kanawha Valley air than previously disclosed to the public, state regulators have discovered - four times more.

By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff writer
www.wvgazette.com

The John Amos Power Plant has released far more sulfuric acid into Kanawha Valley air than previously disclosed to the public, state regulators have discovered.

Exact estimates were not available late last week, and a new emissions report from American Electric Power may not be filed until early March.

But state Department of Environmental Protection officials calculated the Amos acid emissions at roughly four times greater than AEP previously told regulators and residents.

That could amount to several million pounds a year of unreported releases of a toxic chemical that can burn the eyes, mouth and throat, and cause respiratory problems, especially in children with asthma.

"It was significantly higher than they reported," said Earl Billingsly, supervisor of air inspectors for the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality.

DEP engineers are examining the John Amos acid emissions as part of their continuing investigation of the "blue haze" that hung over the Kanawha Valley three weeks ago.

AEP officials say their new pollution figures come from improved methods of estimating plant emissions. The new, higher numbers will reflect a more accurate estimate of each year's emissions, but still not show a year-to-year jump in those emissions, company officials say.

Regulators are wondering if the acid emissions actually increased over the last four years after AEP installed new equipment to control other air emissions.

The emissions reporting issue was at the heart of a major lawsuit that a year ago forced the company to greatly reduce sulfuric acid emissions from one of its plants in Ohio.

Currently, DEP permits for John Amos do not include any limit on the plant's sulfuric acid emissions.

DEP officials are still considering what, if any, actions they will take.

"There's quite a lot of internal discussions going on," Billingsly said. "But no decisions have been made."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also looking into the matter, but is waiting for a more detailed report from AEP.

"Until we get that information, we can't really evaluate this and take a look at it," said Roy Seneca, a spokesman for EPA's regional office in Philadelphia.

Shortly after noon Jan. 25, a blue haze started to appear in the air across the Kanawha Valley. Residents called emergency officials to complain about a strange odor, and questioned whether there had been a chemical leak. County officials began calling area plants, but none reported having any unusual releases or operating problems.

For hours, residents wondered if it was safe to walk back from lunch, drive across town to buy groceries, or pick up their kids from school.

Not until early evening did DEP officials track the problem to a pollution plume from the Amos plant, just across the Kanawha River from Poca.

AEP officials said that nothing unusual happened at their plant that day. They blamed the blue haze on an unusually strong weather event that trapped normal pollution in the Valley.

Generally, chemical factories, power plants and other industrial facilities are required to immediately report releases of hazardous materials to federal, state and local regulators. DuPont and Dow, for example, are required to do this whenever they have leaks of certain materials above a certain amount.

But the John Amos plant's sulfuric acid emissions fall under an exemption. So do Amos releases of nine other hazardous substances, including mercury and hydrochloric acid.

If a company can show that its emissions of certain chemicals are "continuous" and "stable in quantity and rate," it can avoid filing reports with regulators every day. Companies must provide estimates of the upper and lower limits of these emissions. And if they have a significant increase in release amounts, they must file a new form outlining the new figures.

Burning coal with sulfur in it produces sulfur dioxide. Inside plant stacks, some of that sulfur dioxide is converted to sulfur trioxide. When the sulfur trioxide exits the stack, it reacts with moisture in the air to form sulfuric acid.

Over the last four years, AEP has added pollution control equipment called selective catalytic reduction units, or SCRs, to reduce Amos emissions of nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog, but the SCRs also can enhance the creation of sulfur trioxide, increasing the potential for sulfuric acid emissions.

A report form in 2001 listed a maximum of 2,300 pounds per day of sulfuric acid from one stack, and 1,800 pounds per day from a second stack, for a daily total of 4,100 pounds.

A year later, as required by law, AEP filed an anniversary report. It listed a maximum of 4,300 pounds per day of total plant releases of sulfuric acid.

But state Department of Environmental Protection officials calculated the Amos acid emissions at roughly four times greater than AEP previously told regulators and residents.

That could amount to several million pounds a year of unreported releases of a toxic chemical that can burn the eyes, mouth and throat, and cause respiratory problems, especially in children with asthma.

"It was significantly higher than they reported," said Earl Billingsly, supervisor of air inspectors for the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality.

DEP engineers are examining the John Amos acid emissions as part of their continuing investigation of the "blue haze" that hung over the Kanawha Valley three weeks ago.

AEP officials say their new pollution figures come from improved methods of estimating plant emissions. The new, higher numbers will reflect a more accurate estimate of each year's emissions, but still not show a year-to-year jump in those emissions, company officials say.

Regulators are wondering if the acid emissions actually increased over the last four years after AEP installed new equipment to control other air emissions.

The emissions reporting issue was at the heart of a major lawsuit that a year ago forced the company to greatly reduce sulfuric acid emissions from one of its plants in Ohio.

www.wvgazette.com


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