A day after the August 2003 blackout shut down power plants in much of the Midwest and Northeast, scientists at the University of Maryland made a remarkable discovery. Collecting air samples from a plane flying over central Pennsylvania, the researchers found a 90 percent drop in sulfur dioxide levels and a 50 percent reduction in ozone. Visibility increased by more than 25 miles. Says Lackson Marufu, the lead author of the researchers' report: "The improvement in air quality was so great that you could not only measure it, but could actually see it as a much clearer less hazy sky."
Improving air quality should not require shutting down the power grid. In 1970 President Richard M. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, which ordered power companies to install pollution-control devices on all newly built plants. In 1977 Congress added the new-source review provision, which compelled electric companies to clean up older plants as well if their emissions increased because of modifications. Two decades later, though, the Environmental Protection Agency charged that many companies were skirting the law by modifying generators--say, to burn more coal--without putting in pollution controls. In 1999 the U.S. Justice Department sued seven companies for alleged violations at 17 power plants in the South and Midwest. The tough stance produced results: some companies settled the lawsuits by agreeing to reduce their emissions, and others began negotiating with the EPA.
This article was originally published with the title Breathing Difficulties.