Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet

Dirty Prospect For Tampa Bay

In a fight to protect Tampa Bay from unprecedented levels of pollution, the Sierra Club's Manatee-Sarasota group in Florida has joined a broad coalition of environmental, sportfishing, religious and civic groups to stop a power plant from burning a dangerous and dirty fuel.

A mixture of bitumen (a common petroleum distillate used in asphalt production), water and emulsifying agents, orimulsion is currently being burned in Japan, Canada and England, but nowhere near the level proposed for Manatee County. Because orimulsion has not been researched by the Environmental Protection Agency, very little is known about its effects when burned, especially at projected levels of use. Florida Power and Light is the first utility in the United States to seek a permit to burn orimulsion since Manatee County voted in 1993 to relax air pollution laws. The Club-backed Coalition Against Orimulsion is challenging the permit in court and alerting local citizens to its estimated impacts through flyers, forums and community meetings. "Florida Power and Light wants to burn orimulsion because it will cut their fuel costs," said Club leader Mary Sheppard, "but the rest of us will end up paying the high costs of increased pollution." If approved by Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, orimulsion will be shipped into Port Manatee Fla., three to four times a week from Venezuela. Should a spill occur, the substance does not float but instead disperses in the top 10 feet of water, making conventional cleanup impossible and environmental assessment difficult. At least one of its emulsifying components has proved toxic to marine and freshwater species.

When burned for power, orimulsion significantly increases air pollution. Even with emissions controls, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates that burning orimulsion at proposed levels will result in a near-3,000 percent increase in carbon monoxide and an over 200 percent increase in nitrogen oxides. "Not only are nitrogen oxides linked to acid rain and an increase in respiratory disease," said regional representative Theresa Woody, "but they are cited by the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program as a major cause of plant loss in the bay -- and a major threat to the food chain and most marine life in the coastal Gulf of Mexico."

Gov. Chiles and the state legislature are expected to vote this month to approve or deny the orimulsion permit. In the meantime, the coalition is circulating a petition calling on the governor to reject Florida Power and Light's application. "The major power companies in this country are letting Florida Power and Light take the lead in rolling back clean air protections in our watershed," said Woody. "If it gets this permit," added Sheppard, "other power companies served by major ports will go this route too, sending emissions hundreds of miles and threatening the entire eastern seaboard."

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