Coal: Killing Us Softly

If you don’t think about where the power comes from when you plug something into the wall, you may want to start.

A new report shows that emissions from coal-fired power plants, which provide about half of our electricity, will kill more than 13,000 people in the United States this year and cause 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks. The total monetized value of these impacts adds up to more than $100 Billion a year. “The Toll From Coal,” issued by the Clean Air Task Force, provides a compelling and detailed case for transitioning our energy supply from dirty fossil fuels to cleaner sources like solar and wind power and energy efficiency.

Not to mention thinking twice about leaving your cell phone charger plugged in even though you aren’t using it. It’s also a strong argument against current Congressional efforts to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The report hits home because you can go to the website and see a map or cool Google Earth tool  that show how much pollution from these dirty coal plants actually hits your home, and how many deaths it causes in your county, how many hospital visits, as well as the economic toll of these and other health impacts. You can also find per capita Power plant impacts by metropolitan area, total power plant impacts by metropolitan area, per capita power plant impacts by state, and total power plant impacts by state.

The news is grim if you live in the Eastern half of the country.

The study, which NRDC helped craft, looks primarily at the impacts of fine particles small enough to penetrate the body’s defense mechanisms. The particles are formed from the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which coal plants spew in large quantities. Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing heart and other health conditions are particularly vulnerable to these fine particles. The poor, minority groups, and people who live downwind of multiple power plants are also likely to be harder hit.

The report uses the latest scientific findings on the link between air pollution and public health, as well as up-to-date emissions information.

There is a silver lining in this dirty cloud: tighter controls of SO2 and NOx emissions save lives, don’t damage the economy or threaten the reliability of our power system. The last time the study was done in 2004, 24,000 deaths were attributed to these pollutants, along with 21,850 hospital admissions and 38,200 heart attacks. Numbers have dropped largely because tighter regulation has forced installation of approximately 130 ‘scrubbers’ that drastically cut down on NOx and SO2 emissions.

As the report notes:

Pollution control technology, such as scrubbers for SO2, are large projects that require a tremendous amount of skilled labor and materials. Since 2004 roughly 130 scrubbers have been installed at existing power plants. The average scrubber requires 380,000 man hours or 200 person years to complete. Each scrubber installation can take roughly 2 years to complete, which means roughly 100 people working over that period. These jobs are both engineering and management as well as jobs for boilermakers and other skilled labor.

To conduct the report, the Clean Air Task Force commissioned U.S. EPA’s health benefits consulting firm, Abt Associates, to estimate the death and disease attributable to fine particle air pollution from the existing fleet of  approximately 470 coal-fired power plants.  The study used methodology approved by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and confirmed by the National Academy of Science.

The findings of the report are conservative because it did not assess additional health costs associated with coal, including health care costs related with coal’s mercury and carbon dioxide emissions.

With the impacts the report lays out in mind, it is crucial that federal pollution control standards for both existing and new power plant emissions be strengthened. The reductions in deaths, hospitalizations and other health impacts parallel decreases in emissions in national SO2 emissions since 2004. As the report notes:

Over that period of time, sulfur dioxide emissions nationally fell from 10.3 million tons in 2004 to 5.7 million tons in 2009. These reductions largely resulted from the addition of over 130 flue gas desulfurization (FGD) (also known as “scrubbers) installations on coal-fired units, mostly in the eastern U.S. These scrubbers were installed as a result of the combination of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), federal and state enforcement of the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act, and state power plant clean up laws. These actions are responsible for saving nearly 11,000 lives per year and demonstrate that judicious use of the Clean Air Act offers a powerful solution to power plant pollution.

Over the last five years, NOx and SO2 emissions from coal plants have been cut by 72 and 74 percent respectively, thanks to new scrubbers and similar technology. Those reductions haven’t noticeably impacted electricity bills or the reliability of our national electric grid. These are powerful arguments for strengthening rules like CAIR, which the EPA is now in the process of doing through a replacement law called the Transport Rule. EPA should make sure this new law is implemented as soon as possible and is a tough as possible, tougher than early drafts.  

That’s important to keep in mind, as critics in Congress are trying to weaken EPA’s Clean Air Act Authority. There’s no justifiable reason to weaken a landmark law--which turns 40 later this month--that saves lives, helps create jobs and doesn’t harm our economy.