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Height—Good For Basketball, Bad For Air

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View Sam Edmondson's blog posts
13 June 2011, 4:29 PM
Coal plant giants shoot unhealthy pollution across state lines

In the world of professional basketball, height is good. Look no further than Dirk Nowitzki, the 7-foot Dallas Maverick whose combination of stature, speed and shooting ability was a decisive factor in his team's championship victory over the Miami Heat last night. Go Mavs.

In the world of coal plant smokestacks, however, height is bad. The Government Accountability Office (GAO)—Congress's investigative arm—isn't winning any championships, but it did hit a big shot with recent findings that tall smokestacks are one reason air pollution is readily blown across state lines.

Interstate air pollution is an important issue because states bear individual responsibility for meeting federal air quality standards. If a state is doing its best to control air pollution sources within its borders but still failing to meet federal standards because bad air is drifting in from another state, well, I imagine that state would be as mad as Lebron James was after last night's loss.

Today, there are 284 smokestacks in the U.S. that are 500-feet or taller, a handful of which are twice that size. But it wasn't always that way. In 1970, only two stacks in the U.S. were taller than 500 feet. Then came requirements under the Clean Air Act that levels of soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other harmful pollutants had to be reduced to protect public health.

So, industry started building its smokestacks taller. The rationale was that tall smokestacks would emit pollutants higher into the atmosphere, dispersing them and limiting their impact on the local environment.

That's true, but dispersion and reduction aren't the same thing. The height of a smokestack has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of pollution that's released. Pollution from a tall stack gets carried by wind currents far downstream, and it tends to hang out in the air for longer, providing ample opportunity for conversion to particle pollution (soot), acid rain and ozone—which all cause major damage to human health and the environment.

In 1977, Congress made amendments to the Clean Air Act to encourage the use of actual pollution reduction technology in lieu of sleight-of-hand techniques like tall smokestacks. That seemed to have some effect, according to the GAO report. Recently, the agency proposed a Clean Air Transport Rule (CATR) to reduce the kind of interstate air pollution that tall stacks contribute to. These reductions would be accomplished through the use of pollution controls.

The GAO's findings highlight how important the CATR is. Fifty-six percent of boilers—the machinery in which coal is burned to boil water and generate steam—that are connected to tall smokestacks lack technology to control sulfur dioxide emissions. Sixty-three percent do not have controls to trap nitrogen oxides.

It's time to increase the defense on those tall smokestacks—coal plants without pollution controls should put in the technology to limit their emissions. The Heat wasn't able to contain Dirk Nowitzki's scoring, but we can certainly contain the unhealthy pollution shooting out of those towering smokestacks. That's a winning idea.

Hello! eeackfe interesting eeackfe site!

Hey Sam,

Although I agree with you about the CATR, it is clear that you have a lot to learn about smokestacks (industrial chimneys), pollution control technology and the real reason why the CATR is being developed.

For example, a pre-1970 500' tall chimney is not uncommon. Many were built in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. I've personally climbed more pre-1970 500'+ chimneys than you state above (two).

Chimneys do not house pollution control. In fact ZERO "percent do not have controls to trap nitrogen oxides".

Chimneys will always be used to disperse flue gas from burning fuels. It's the same reason a car has a tailpipe, and a house has a residential chimney. You wouldn't want all those fumes in your house or car, would you?

I agree that combustibles-as-fuel is not a good idea, but going after the chimney is just silly.


Jack, thanks much for the critique. Let me respond to your points in the order in which they were raised. First, regarding the existence of pre-1970 500-footers: the figure I used comes from the GAO report (see p. 5, in the "Background" section). Are the stacks you are referencing at coal-fired power plants, or other kinds of facilities? I'm curious to hear more.

Second, your critique that stacks do not house pollution control is right on, and I should've taken greater care to make that clear. The pollution control can be housed either in the boiler or in the ductwork that connects the boiler to the stack. And though flue gas will always be vented, the amount of pollution (SO2, NOx, particulate matter, mercury, etc.) will depend on if and what kind of pollution control technology is installed.


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