Coal Power Soot Kills 24,000 Americans Annually

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 10, 2004 (ENS) - Air pollution from the nation’s coal-fired power plants causes some 24,000 premature deaths each year, according new research released Wednesday. The study, based on analysis by a consulting firm used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), finds some 90 percent of these premature deaths could be prevented by currently available emissions control technology.

A coalition of national environmental groups called Clear the Air commissioned the study from Abt Associates, one of the largest government and business research and consulting firms in the world.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the firm has provided the EPA and the Bush administration with analysis of many of the agency’s air quality programs.

The Clear the Air study examined the impact of fine particulate matter emissions from the nation’s 1,100 coal-fired power plants. Then this data was compared with epidemiological studies from Harvard University and the American Cancer Society.

Fine particulate matter, or soot, from coal-fired power plants is primarily caused by emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2). These facilities spew some 11 million tons of SO2 each year, some 68 percent of the nation’s total.

power plant

Widows Creek coal-fired power plant in Alabama operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency. (Photo courtesy TVA)
The analysis finds that those people whose lives were cut short because of this pollution lost an average of 14 years, dying earlier than they would have otherwise.

Some 2,800 of these deaths were from lung cancer, according to the report.

In addition, pollution from coal-fired power plants causes some 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks each year, 554,000 asthma attacks and some three million lost work days.

The study finds the annual total health costs associated with soot from power plants tops $167 billion.

The report analyzes the impact of Bush administration's air pollution plan, which aims to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and smog forming nitrogen oxide some 70 percent by 2015.

The Bush plan, which has been criticized by environmentalists and Democrats because it is less aggressive than the Clean Air Act, would cut the total of premature deaths from power plant emissions some 14,000 by 2020.

The study finds enforcement of the existing Clean Air Act would cut this total by some 18,000 by 2020.

In addition, the report examined the impacts of two legislative proposals – one by Delaware Democratic Senator Tom Carper and another by Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.

Carper’s bill would result in 16,000 fewer premature deaths by 2020, according to the report, and Jeffords’ proposal would cut the total by 22,000.

"The results are staggering," said Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air, a joint project of National Environmental Trust, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Clean Air Task Force.

"The Bush administration knows how to solve this problem,” Ledford said. “But instead of simply enforcing the law, they are allowing the polluters to rewrite the rules, weaken current law, and pass it off as progress."

Industry officials note SO2 emissions have fallen some 75 percent from 1970 to 1999 and will continue to decline in coming years.

And the Bush administration, whose close ties to the energy industry are well documented, has agreed with the industry view that stricter emissions control requirements will make coal less cost effective and would hamper the nation’s ability to take advantage of a 250 year domestic supply.

"If environmentalist critics and their allies succeed in using regulatory or litigation tactics to push for actions well beyond what is necessary for protection of human health and the environment, consumers will be hurt," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Council, a lobbying group for coal-fired power plants.

But environmentalists, public health advocates and many state officials say public health should be the priority and contend the industry overstates the economic impact of regulation.

The report details the overall benefits of enforcing the existing Clean Air Act would cost industry a total of $10.9 billion, but would return some $148 billion in annual benefits by 2020.


Soot emitted from a smokestack (Photo courtesy DOE)
A range of critics are growing increasingly frustrated with the Bush administration’s relaxed approach to cutting harmful emissions from coal-fired power plants, including its cap and trade proposal to cut mercury emissions and its revisions to existing law.

Since taking office the Bush administration has finalized several major changes to the New Source Review program, which is designed to ensure the nation’s dirtiest power plants do not expand operations without installing new – and expensive – pollution control technology.

Rule changes finalized in August 2003 exempted many facilities from the law's permit and pollution control requirements. More than a dozen states filed suit to block the rules, which have been stayed by a federal court.

Critics, including state and local pollution control officials, believe the rule changes add a mass of uncertainty to the New Source Review program – the exact opposite of what the administration and industry say is needed.

Ledford’s group also launched a related interactive Web site that enables the public to learn about the health problems caused by coal-fired power plants in their town, city, and state.

Pennsylvania leads the way with some 1,825 premature deaths annually from power plant soot, followed by Ohio, Florida, Illinois and New York.

West Virginia ranks first in per capita mortality rate, followed by Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana.

Read the study online at: