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   Triangle    NC    Nation/World    Columnists    Editorials

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2001 4:33 a.m. EDT

Editorial: Coal-fired cleanup
North Carolinians would benefit on health and environmental grounds if a clean-air bill passes in the General Assembly. But it would be unfair for electricity customers to pay the cleanup's full cost.

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There's a troublesome live wire in an otherwise progressive bill to clean up coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. Sponsored by mountain-area legislators Sen. Stephen Metcalf and Rep. Martin Nesbitt, the bill -- now pending in the state Senate -- would drastically cut pollution-causing emissions from 14 plants scattered across the state. In its current form, however, CP&L and Duke Power Co. customers would pay the full $2.2 billion cost through rate increases. The N.C. Utilities Commission would set the increases until the state-of-the-art scrubbers and filters were paid for.

CP&L and Duke profit nicely from doing business in North Carolina. Yet executives resisted stricter pollution standards for their plants for years because of the high cost involved. Their compliance would have been voluntary, of course, because special interests managed to have coal-fired plants exempted from federal clean air laws. Now that CP&L and Duke customers would be required to pick up the whole tab, the companies support the cleanup bill.

It's important to note that North Carolina retail customers use only about 60 percent of the electricity generated at the 14 plants but would be saddled with the total cost of the cleanup. And other industries -- which properly have paid to comply with clean-air laws -- would pay higher power bills to help finance the utilities' improvements. There certainly seems to be a risk of unfairness here.

What's more, the Utilities Commission would have no hand in protecting ordinary North Carolinians under the bill. The agency would simply set rate increases until the $2.2 billion was recouped. That's odd, since the commission exists to make objective judgments on rate matters. Its staff is equipped to consider Duke's and CP&L's total financial pictures in determining how much of the cost of providing electricity the companies and their shareholders should absorb.

As far as the bill's objectives go, they are solid. Ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions would be cut 78 percent by 2013. Sulfur dioxide would drop by 73 percent. The improvements are close to the targets that experts say would protect human and ecological health in the state. Much of the pollution that blankets the mountains, of course, comes from states west of North Carolina, but the bill would give North Carolina officials the high ground when they ask those states to cut their emissions.

North Carolina still has some of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the nation. Vehicle exhaust is a culprit as well, but the state in 1999 had the fifth highest number of unhealthy air days. The American Lung Association ranked the Triangle 17th in smog in the nation and the Charlotte area a breath-taking eighth.

Metcalf and Nesbitt properly worked for their districts -- where mountain vistas often are obscured by smog -- when they dealt with the power companies. But they gave away too much. A fairer payment schedule is possible -- and the Utilities Commission is the proper body to figure it out.

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