Power Plant Pollution Costs Lives

Soot pollution from U.S. power plants shortens the lives of more than 30,000 people each year, according to a study by Clean the Air, a coalition of three national clean air advocacy groups.

The national study released today examined the health impacts of soot — or fine particle — pollution from power plants. Coal-fired power plants have the most significant impact on health, the group found.

Among the states with the greatest number of deaths are Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, and Texas. The highest per capita death impacts were found in “coal” states such as Kentucky, where 44.1 people die per 100,000 adults; West Virginia with 43.3 deaths per 100,000 adults; and Alabama with 42.8 deaths per 100,000 adults.

“Pollution from dirty power plants poses a serious threat to public health,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force. “More people die as a result of the pollution from these plants every year than from drunk driving or homicides, societal woes that everyone agrees are top priorities.”

Adverse health effects from soot pollution include asthma attacks, cardiac problems and upper and lower respiratory problems — maladies affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans. The elderly, children and those with respiratory diseases are most vulnerable to soot pollution, the study found.

Some Metro Areas Hit Hard

Metropolitan areas with large populations near coal-fueled power plants have much higher death rates related to fine particle pollution than areas with few or no coal-fired power plants, the study says. The metropolitan areas with the greatest number of fatalities are New York with 2,290, Washington D.C. with 1,140, Philadelphia with 997, Chicago with 995, and Atlanta with 647.

The new study is based on research conducted by Abt Associates, a firm used frequently by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assess the health benefits of its regulatory programs. The EPA approved the methodology of the firm’s research.

Prof. John Spengler of the Harvard School of Public Health, who wrote the foreword to the study, said the report provides the most rigorous look to date at the contribution of power plant emissions to fine particle pollution and its impact on health.

“We can only hope the information provided through this study will help crystallize the policy debate leading to dramatic reductions in pollution from dirty power plants,” Spengler said.

Solving the Problem

About 18,000 deaths due to soot pollution from power plants could be avoided by implementing policies that cut power plant sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution 75 percent below 1997 emission levels, Clean the Air argues. Several bills calling for such emissions reductions are pending in Congress.

The group points to what it calls a loophole in the Clean Air Act that allows the oldest coal-burning power plants to circumvent the air emissions standards required of modern plants.

Paul Bailey of the Edison Electric Institute, the lobbying arm of the electric plant industry, said the EPA conducts a periodic review to determine if new particle standards are needed. His group is awaiting the results of that study, he said. “We’re not saying that we shouldn’t do anything about it. We’re just saying that the review the EPA has underway should tell us whether the numbers in the environmental study are right or not,” he said.

“If there are health benefits, we will spend more money. And the price of electricity will go up,” he said.