Blue clouds of sulfuric acid have descended upon towns in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia more than a dozen times since May. The clouds are from smoke stacks at American Electric Power’s General James M. Gavin plant in rural Cheshire, Ohio. It’s one of the largest coal-burning power plants in North America. The company blames a new 200 million dollar pollution control system for releasing more toxic emissions. If they’re right, other Midwestern power companies may face similar troubles when trying to comply with federal clean air laws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:
Blue clouds of sulfuric acid have descended upon towns in south-eastern Ohio and West Virginia more than a dozen times since may. The clouds are from smoke stacks at American Electric Powers General John M. Gavin plant in rural Cheshire, Ohio. It’s one of the largest coal-burning power plants in North America. The company blames a new 200-million dollar pollution control system for releasing more toxic emissions. If they’re right, other midwestern power companies may face similar troubles when trying to comply with federal clean air laws. The great lakes radio consortium’s Natalie Walston reports.
The small, rundown airport in Mt. Pleasant sits on a flat part of the hills of West Virginia.
It’s surrounded by thick trees. Its rural enough here that it’s common to see wild turkeys dashing across the runways. One summer afternoon airport manager Ben Roush looked out his window. But instead of seeing a plane land … he saw thick smoke clinging to the tops of the trees.
“It looked like, uh, exhaust out of a car or something like that. It wasn’t black smoke it was blue. Very, very visible.”
After the smoke appeared, his phone began to ring.
“The fire department down here called up here and wanted to know if we had a fire up here because it was all in these … it settled to the ground. And, it was in those trees.”
The clouds contain high concentrations of sulfuric acid. That’s not normal … even this close to a power plant that burns coal with a high sulfur content. For years, most coal-burning power plants have had pollution control devices called “scrubbers” to deal with that sulfur. The scrubbers do just what the name implies – they scrub the air clean of sulfur dioxide as well as some other pollutants. But, they don’t do a good job in removing nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is blamed in part for causing acid rain and smog.
Paul Chodak is manager of American Electric Power’s Optimization Group. He says AEP installed a selective catalytic reduction system … or SCR … in an effort to remove nitrous oxide. Chodak says the SCR system is a relatively new technology. And, so far, it and the scrubber aren’t working well together. That’s because they are combining to make sulfuric acid, but in a different form. And that form then gets released into the air.
“The SO3 … or sulfuric acid is in very fine droplets … sub-micron size droplets. Very, very tiny. And they’re so small that they travel through the scrubber and they’re not removed. So, the scrubber works very well on the gas in removing SO2. However, it’s not very effective in removing SO3.”
Chodak says this is all because of an effort to reduce emissions that cause acid rain and smog in eastern seaboard states. But… as AEP scrambles to stop polluting the air hundreds of miles away … people who live beneath the smoke stacks claim their health is being sacrificed. They say that in the summer, when the sulfuric acid clouds move in it’s difficult to breathe.
(natural sound of NASCAR race and drunk people carrying on)
Gallipolis is a small city five miles south of the power plant. Today there’s a small crowd of people gathered at Sunny’s bar and grille. People here will only give their first names to an out of town reporter. A man named Steve is drinking a beer at a table with his sister. He says fallout from the plant makes the paint peel off cars.
“All that acid and stuff goes on these cars. They gotta repaint the cars … so you know it’s tearin’ us up. Our bodies. And, like I say, we worry about our kids and grandkids more. We’re old enough that it’s not gonna bother us no more.”
His sister Tammy drags slowly on a cigarette as Steve talks.
When he finishes, she jumps in to say that since the blue clouds started showing up, everyone in town has become sick.
“I have health problems. I cough all the time. Allergies all the time. Allergies to something’. Runny nose. Constantly. You know, I think everyone in town has health problems that live around here.”
But AEP claims the air is cleaner than it was before the SCR system was installed. Paul Chodak says the air turned blue this summer because the sulfuric acid reacted with sunlight on hot, humid days. He says people become scared because they could actually see what they were breathing.
“The hard thing for people to understand is that what is coming out of the stack is significantly cleaner than what was coming out before. This is an improvement from a pollution control perspective. However, it has created this local phenomena that is a problem. And, AEP is moving to address that and we will solve it.”
Sulfuric acid measurements taken by the company and examined by Ohio and U.S. EPA researchers meanwhile don’t show a major sulfuric acid problem. But there are no state standards in place in Ohio for levels of gaseous sulfuric acid in the air.
Kay Gilmer of the Ohio EPA says emissions from AEP have exceeded sulfuric acid standards set by other states. However, she says people near the plant stacks aren’t in immediate danger. But she hesitates to say the air is perfectly safe to breathe.
“We didn’t have anything that would um … that we would … that we looked at that was exceptionally high. But, that was, I don’t want to say that to say we’re not concerned with the problem.”
Meanwhile, people near the plant say they’re tired of having their health jeopardized so people far away from them can breathe easier. They are working with state environmental groups to possibly fight the power plant in court.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.