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EPA: Fewer toxic chemicals emitted into WV air in 2011

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Releases of toxic chemicals in 2011 in West Virginia were 14 percent below the level in 2010.

Even more astonishing, they were down almost half from 2008 levels.

Nearly all of the reason: pollution controls on modern power plants, along with reduced generation at aged plants that haven't been worth updating.

The change mainly reflects the most recent successes in the electric utilities' many-year, multi-billion-dollar project to clean up coal-fired power plants. They do that by installing scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide emissions and selective catalytic reduction units to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides.

It also reflects reduced generation at old plants that haven't gotten modern pollution controls.

The emissions data come from the Toxics Release Inventory for 2011, the subject of a Jan. 16 Environmental Protection Agency analysis. Reported in pounds for numerous pollutants, TRI data aggregates volumes of emissions. It does not, at its broadest level, distinguish among more and less toxic types of pollutants and their effects on humans and the environment.

Here's the big picture: In 2008, "point source air emissions" — stuff coming out of smokestacks — totaled 45 million pounds in West Virginia, about two-thirds of all releases of toxic chemicals reported to the EPA for the state.

In 2011, that was just 18.7 million pounds, less than half the total and a difference of 26 million pounds.

The state's largest power plant, AEP's John Amos plant in Putnam County, accounts for most of that. Scrubbers that came online on its three generating units starting in 2009 and ending in 2011 took 14.3 million pounds of emissions a year out of the air between 2008 and 2011.

Also scrubbed during that period was FirstEnergy's Fort Martin power plant in Monongalia County. That took it down by another 4.7 million pounds of air emissions.

Reduced generation at AEP's 1950s-vintage Philip Sporn plant in Mason County cut air emissions by another 3 million pounds over the period, and reduced generation at its 1950s Kammer plant in Marshall County — emissions reported together with the adjacent Mitchell station — accounts for another 1.5 million pounds. Both Sporn and Kammer are slated for retirement.

The project to modernize the state's coal generation fleet has shifted the profile of the counties in the Toxics Release Inventory.

In 2008, Putnam County, where Amos is located, had the highest level of what is categorized as "on-site" releases, at 15.4 million pounds, and Mason County, home to Sporn, was second at 7.3 million.

But in 2011, Mason County was fourth and Putnam had fallen to tenth.

Topping the list in 2011 was Harrison County, where FirstEnergy's scrubbed, 1970s-vintage Harrison power station is located, at a far-lower 6.0 million pounds. Pleasants County, which hosts FirstEnergy's scrubbed 1980 Pleasants power station and the little-used and since shuttered 1950s-era Willow Island plant, came in at 5.2 million pounds.

It must be noted that, as emissions are scrubbed at modern power plants, toxic chemicals emitted into the air drop dramatically, but those that must be disposed of in the capturing solid medium of coal combustion residuals, or "coal ash," rise.