New Jersey residents would breathe easier under a federal crackdown on coal-fired power plants.

The state would have to cut smog pollution in half to meet stricter clean-air standards under rules proposed this week by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is calling on New Jersey and 27 other states in the eastern half of the nation to curb plant emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, pollutants that contribute to smog and breathing problems. Officials expect the new federal standards to be finalized next year.

But the seven coal-fired power plants in New Jersey already are taking steps to meet this pollution goal in keeping with state laws, which are among the nation’s strictest, officials said.

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“All of New Jersey’s plants are either well-controlled or on their way to being well-controlled in the next six years,” said Bill O’Sullivan, administrator of air quality for the state Department of Environmental Prot ection.

The Vineland Municipal Electric Utility, for example, is scheduled to shut down its last coal-fired boiler and replace it with a natural-gas turbine this year, he said.

And when Conectiv Energy sold its Deepwater Generating Station near the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Salem County to Houston-based Calpine this month, one condition was for Conectiv to use up its stockpile of coal. The new owner plans to burn only natural gas, Calpine spokeswoman Norma Dunn said.

“We made the commitment not to burn coal. Calpine is a very environmentally conscious company,” Dunn said.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest sources of nitrogen oxide pollution in the United States. These plants routinely rank among New Jersey’s biggest polluters, according to the EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory.

The state fined Conectiv more than $5 million in 2008 for air-pollution violations at its Deepwater plant.

All of this pollution harms people’s health, said Kevin M. Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association.

“They do adversely exacerbate conditions in people who already have chronic lung disease and heart disease or diabetes,” he said.

The 13 northern counties have the worst record in New Jersey for fine-particle pollution. But the entire state, including Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Cumberland counties, experiences high levels of ozone caused, at least in part, by coal-fired power plants.

New Jersey residents will benefit from pollution sanctions in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where coal-fired power plants spew toxins that travel to the state on prevailing westerly winds.

While New Jersey’s plants produce about 57,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, Pennsylvania’s plants are responsible for more than 1 million tons.

New Jersey pollution, meanwhile, has a similar effect on residents to the north in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the EPA said.

“New Jersey is somewhat off the hook — not completely — compared to what other states will have to put in place,” Stewart said.

In Cape May County, RC Cape May is investing $204 million in pollution upgrades at the coal-fired B.L. England power plant in Upper Township to meet state and federal laws.

The DEP’s O’Sullivan said the company will install additional pollution controls called selective catalytic reduction over the next two years.

And with the federal crackdown, New Jersey residents should see a noticeable difference in air quality, he said.

“Over the next two to 10 years, there should be dramatic reductions (in air pollution),” he said.

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