A recent study that ranks Ohio second among the states in the amount of mercury and other airborne toxic substances generated by coal-fired power plants is, sadly, no surprise. But the reality is not something to shrug off either.
If Ohio is to make the transition to a cleaner economy, the private sector will need more incentives. That includes strong enforcement of the state law that requires utilities to embrace more-renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar power,
It also requires support of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule that aims to curb mercury and other toxic releases. Such initiatives help improve Great Lakes water quality and the region's public health.
The new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that in 2010, Ohio electricity producers released 36.4 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air. They represented about 12 percent of all toxic pollution from U.S. power plants that year.
Still, that was an improvement: Ohio power plants spewed 18 percent fewer toxic substances into the air in 2010 than the year before. The downturn in the state's economy probably had something to do with that change.
Yet environmental groups also attribute the improvement to a shift toward greater use by industry of cheaper, cleaner natural gas, as well as the installation of more pollution-control equipment. Renewable-energy investments have made sizable dents in pollution as well, environmental advocates say.
Still, Ohio gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal combustion. Officials need to push for more energy diversity to bring the state more in line with the national average of 44 percent.
There is no need to revisit the legal mandate that at least 12.5 percent of the state's power must come from renewable sources by 2025. Utilities such as FirstEnergy Corp., which initially balked at a provision that just one-half of 1 percent of energy output in 2025 must come from solar power, are meeting annual benchmarks. That progress must continue.
Ohio's energy future must become a more prominent issue in this year's political campaigns, given its role as a key swing state. Ohio also is a battleground for the nation's energy-policy debate, considering its proximity to the Great Lakes.
The lakes get most of their pollution from toxic air releases that settle on the water. The EPA's mercury rule is projected to bring down emissions of that dangerous neurotoxin by 79 percent from 2010 levels starting in 2015.
The Obama Administration, with help from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), has staved off an intense effort by Republican lawmakers to undo the mercury rule. But such misguided attempts at repeal are likely to continue.
Ohio's future energy markets and public health, as well as the health of the Great Lakes region, will be greatly influenced by the outcome of this fall's election. Ohio has made progress in reducing air pollution, but has far to go. State and federal policy makers should build on, not demolish, what's already in place.
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