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Cleaned-Up Coal: Technology Improvements, Low-Sulfur Resources Are Winning the Day against Air Pollution

By Mary Hutzler -- June 12, 2009

Air quality from America’s coal plants have been improving for decades, even before Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. And since 1970, the six so-called criteria pollutants have declined significantly overall and in the generation of electricity, even though coal-fired generation has increased by more than 180 percent.[i] (The “criteria pollutants”—those for which the EPA has set criteria for permissable levels—are carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide [SO2], nitrogen oxides [NOx], ground-level ozone, and particulate matter [PM]).

Specifically, total SO2 emissions from coal-fired plants were reduced by about 40 percent between 1970 and 2006, and NOx emissions were reduced by almost 50 percent between 1980 and 2006. On an output basis, the percent reduction is even greater, with SO2 emissions (in pounds per megawatt-hour) almost 80 percent lower, and NOx emissions 70 percent lower.