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Public Health Benefits of Dethroning King Coal in the U.S.

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The movement to renewable energy is the preferred strategy to clean energy future for our nation. Clean energy market is growing. More than $243 billion in new investments were made in clean energy in 2010.   According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency ( EIA ), renewable generation made up 10.6 percent of total generation in 2009. The largest three contributors were hydro (6.9 percent), wind (1.9 percent), followed by wood and wood-derived fuels (0.9 percent). Discounting the hydro share, renewable generation made up 3.6 percent of total generation.

Coal is still king--accounting for half of U.S. electricity in 2009. The time has come to dethrone this dirty king and shift investments to clean renewable energy.Coal-fired power plants are not randomly distributed across the American landscape. The siting of power plants has significant environmental justice implications since all Americans do not have the same probability of having a dirty coal-fired power plant as a neighbor. For example, more than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. In comparison, 56 percent of whites and 39 percent of Latinos live in such proximity to a coal-fired power plant. Over 35 million American children live within 30 miles of a power plant, of which an estimated 2 million are asthmatic.

Coal is cheap. Coal is also dirty, polluting when it is mined, transported to power plants, stored, and burned. Coal causes smog, soot, acid rain, global warming, and toxic air emissions. So where is the clean part? The so-called "clean coal" is more myth and PR than reality. The clean coal myth should be buried after the Dec. 22, 2008 TVA coal plant spill sent 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash over several hundred acres of land, destroying nearby houses. The toxic coal ash was later shipped by railcar to Perry County, Alabama, a rural, poor and mostly African American county.

Coal ash endangers Americans' health and their environment. The 2004 Dirty Air, Dirty Power report revealed some shocking health impacts of air pollution from power plants: mortality (23.600), hospital admissions (21,850), emergency room visits for asthma (26,000) heart attacks (38,200), chronic bronchitis (16,200) asthma attacks (554,000), and lost work days (3,186,000).

Coal-burning power plants are the major source of pollution, a neurotoxin especially harmful to children and developing fetuses. A typical coal plant generates 170 pounds of mercury in a year, where just 1/70th of a teaspoon deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists , a typical 500-megawatt coal plant includes more than 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber each year. Nationally, more than 75 percent of this waste is disposed of in unlined, unmonitored onsite landfills and surface impoundments.

Mercury from coal-fired power plants have been shown to cause neurological damage, including lower IQ, in children exposed in the womb and during early development. About 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age are at risk from mercury pollution. In addition to mercury, coal plants produce toxic wastes, including arsenic, chromium, and cadmium that can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital human organs and the nervous system.

The Sierra Club released a comprehensive interactive map of the approximately 500 existing U.S. coal-fired power plants. The report outlines a roadmap for moving the country beyond coal. Coal -burning power plants are the major source of mercury pollution, a neurotoxin especially harmful to children and developing fetuses. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all mercury emissions nationwide . Much of the mercury stays airborne for two years and spreads around the globe.

This past March, the EPA proposed first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants.   The new standards could prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children each year; avert more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions annually; and lead to 850,000 fewer days of work missed due to health problems. EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce power plant pollution, the American public and American businesses will see up to $13 in health and economic benefits. The annual health and economic benefits of this new standard are estimated to be in the range of $59 to $140 billion in 2016. A recent report from a team of Harvard Medical School researchers calculated the " hidden cost of coal " in the range of $175 billion to $523 billion per year.

The EPA will be holding three public hearings on the proposed new standards on May 24 (Chicago and Philadelphia) and May 26 (Atlanta). EPA also will accept written comments on the proposed standards until July 5, 2011. EPA will finalize the rule by November 2011.


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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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