Tag Archives: Coal

Coal Pollution Effects on Human Health

Coal fired power plants are the single largest source of pollution in any country. http://saferenvironment.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/coal-fired-power-plants-and-pollution/

Coal fired power plants are the single largest source of pollution in any country.

Coal-fired power plant emissions contribute to global warming, ozone smog, acid rain, regional haze, and – perhaps most consequential of all from a public health standpoint- fine particle pollution. Emissions from the U.S. power sector cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, and hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, and lost workdays. So why are these power plants still up and running, and more importantly, why are there still planned developments of new plants?

To simplify things, public health concerns have focused, for at least the last decade, on the role of very small airborne particles in causing or contributing to various forms of respiratory and cardiopulmonary ailments and increasing the risk of premature death. These fine particles are particularly dangerous because they can bypass your body’s defensive mechanisms and become lodged deep inside your lungs. In fact, research also indicates that short-term exposures to fine particle pollution is linked to cardiac effects, including increased risk of heart attack. Meanwhile, long-term exposure to fine particle pollution has been shown to increase the risk of death from cardiac and respiratory diseases and lung cancer, resulting in shorter life-expectancy for people living in the most polluted cities. So who are the people that are most likely to be exposed to these health risks? In general, the poor, minority groups, and people who live in the areas downwind of multiple power plants. And unfortunately, persistent elevated levels of fine particle pollution are common across wide areas of the U.S., mainly in the east.

The adverse effects, including abnormally high levels of mortality, occur even at low ambient concentrations of fine particles—suggesting there is no “safe” threshold for this type of pollution. Since most fine particle-related deaths are thought to occur within a year or two of exposure, reducing power plant pollution will have almost immediate benefits. Below is a very nice table that I found from Physicians for Social Responsibility, outlining various diseases/conditions connected to coal pollutants.

Coal Pollution vs human Health

As it stands, we are at a turning point for determining the U.S.’s future energy policies. The health consequences tied to coal production are vast and have major impacts. We need to address the issue of coal-fired energy production, and we need to address it now. There should be NO new construction of coal fired power plants, and we must initiate plans to retire as many coal plants as possible that are currently in production.

Finally, as a nation, we must develop our capacity to produce energy from clean, safe, renewable sources in order to phase out the existing coal plants without compromising the ability to meet the nations energy needs. Instead of investing any more of our money into coal, the U.S. should fund conservation measures, energy efficiency, and renewable energy sources such as wind energy and solar power, which don’t have such a negative effect on public health.

Written by: Courtney Dunphy

Proposed EPA Regulation could force Cleaner Energy and Protect Health

In a world and nation where water and energy are two things our growing population is starving for, an issue that combines both is of the utmost importance. This is why I’d love to inform you about a recent regulation proposed by the EPA that would place limits on the amount and type of toxic metals and other pollutants that can be discharged by steam electric power plants (coal, oil, and natural gas) into our waterways. These regulations, dubbed Effluent Limitation Guidelines, will have the greatest effect on coal plants so I will address it as pertaining to coal henceforward.

Toxic waste discharged from power plant

Toxic waste discharged from a coal plant

This bill is extremely important in guiding the future state of human and environmental health as well as the phasing into cleaner sources of energy. It is going to be implemented but what has yet to be decided is which option out of four will be chosen to be implemented. “The four options are based on varying levels of treatment for seven different waste streams generated by the plants and differ in the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed” said the congressional research service. There are allegations being made that the White House Office of Management and Budget is attempting to weaken the proposed standards in response to coal industry demands. The coal industry will obviously be fighting for the least strict regulations, which brings in the underdog, “we the people”, to stand up for more regulated water pollution.

I will now make a claim as to why it is so important that the strongest regulation (option 4 out of 4), which will reduce annual pollutant discharge by 2.62 billion pounds and reduce annual water usage by 103 billion pounds, needs to be implemented.

These regulations need to be in the strongest form possible because, as a study conducted  in North Carolina by Duke University revealed, coal plants have implemented scrubbers and other technologies to reduce the amount of toxic air pollution (coinciding with the Clean Air Act) but those pollutants are just ending up in the waste water that the coal plants produce, defeating the purpose of the “CLEAN” Air Act. The study also uncovered other disturbing information: the highest concentration of contaminants were found in a waste water pond that was being directly released into a primary drinking water source for Charlotte, North Carolina. After testing the water, the scientists found a couple of areas that exceeded the EPA guidelines for safe drinking water and aquatic life. These unhealthy levels were also found in two popular recreational lakes in the northern part of the state. This is just 1 example.

Why doesn’t the Clean Water Act regulate this water pollution problem?

For one, existing guidelines that limit the pollutants emitted into the water by coal plants have not been updated in over 30 years. Also, many regulators have said the Clean Water Act is inadequate because is does not mandate limits on the most dangerous chemicals in power plant waste and it is also claimed to have loopholes that the energy industry takes advantage of. In addition to that, 90% of 313 coal plants that have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004 were not fined or penalized by federal or state regulators, according to a New York Times Analysis of EPA records.

There is countless information that supports the need for this nation-wide water pollution regulation in its strongest form, so I proceed… Here is a link to fish consumption advisories in Texas due to water pollution. All the water bodies surrounding my hometown, including some I have previously caught fish in (and eaten), are polluted with the following advisory given for a couple: “Persons should not consume any species of fish from these waters”.  Although coal plants cannot be solely blamed for this (as it is hard to trace back pollution), they are definitely a large contributing factor. Some other unfortunate statistics found in a report produced by a coalition of environmental and clean water groups: “Of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber waste water into waterways, nearly 70% (188), have no limits on the amount of toxic metals like arsenic, mercury, boron, cadmium, and selenium they are allowed to dump into public waters.” When you consider this pollution which produces horrible health effects such as reduced growth and development, cancer, organ damage, nervous system damage, and death, one begins to hope that policy decisions regarding this pollution are really going to be made on our behalf.

I digress from the smorgasbord of depressing health and environmental data on this pollution and focus on what this bill will do. It will:

1.  Set national standards that limit the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into our waterways by coal plants and is based upon technological improvements in the industry over the last 30 years.

2. Require coal plants to monitor and report the amount of pollution dumped into our waterways. (We deserve to know this!)

The strongest proposal is common-sense, affordable, and is already being used by some coal plants. This regulation will force coal companies to internalize the cost of pollution, justly relieving that burden from the health of our communities and precious water sources. If you feel strongly about this issue, make your voice heard! It will take a strong force to overcome the corporate interests that are going to fight their hardest for the lowest regulation for what they can dump into our waters.

Things you can do:

1. Make a meeting with your Senator or Representative to let them know you support the strongest regulations

2. Write a Letter to the Editor and submit it to your local newspaper

3. Educate your friends!

More information on the bill can be found here

ERCOT latest planning documents shows more gains for Wind, Solar

It ain’t the most exciting meeting in the world, but once a month, I attend the “Reliability and Operations Subcommittee” at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the Texas electric grid.


And once a month, our group – composed of generators, consumers, market players, retailers and wires companies among others — gets a monthly planning update known officially as the “System Planning Monthly Status Report.” Click here for access to the report itself.

And that report not only shows how much energy was used in ERCOT that month, it also shows how much from various types of resources, and more importantly, what resources — be they wind, solar, storage, gas, or coal — will be serving future loads. All of those proposed projects must go through financing, environmental permitting, and a complicated registration and study process with local wires companies known as an “Interconnection Agreement.” Even getting an approved interconnection agreement done is no guarantee a project will be built, because environmental permits, financing and market conditions still must exist for a project to move forward. Just ask the developers behind coal projects like Las Brisas and White Stallion where their projects are today. Fortunately, market conditions and a spirited citizen’s campaign, including the Sierra Club, helped doom those projects.

So what do the latest figures tell us? They suggest that there are some 13,000 MWs of proposed energy projects that have already signed an Interconnection Agreement or are in the process of getting an interconnection agreement (some 31,000). Of those, only two projects – the Summit Power Plant in West Texas and the  Sandy Creek project — are coal, and that represents only about 1,000 MWs of power, a relatively modest amount. In fact, there are slightly more MWs composed of solar projects in the process — at 1,264 MWs — than coal. Just last month, the White Camp Solar project in the panhandle became the first proposed solar plant in Texas of at least 100 MWs to officially sign an interconnection agreement with American Electric Power, which runs the electric grid in that area of the state. There is also almost 1,000 MWs of storage being looked at, and get this — some 22,000 MWs of wind power, much of which is located along the coast. The rest – about 19,000 MWs — is gas, much of intended only to meet peaking power needs.

The wind story is impressive and the ERCOT document further reports that if all of the wind projects with signed interconnection agreements actually go forward, wind production within ERCOT would go from about 10,500 MWs today to some 15,000 MWs in 2015. Currently, that wind is providing anywhere from a fraction of Texas’s electricity needs, to some 35% on certain days when the wind blows hard, particularly in the spring.

Fuel Type

Confidential Projects (MW)

Projects Under Full Study (MW)

Public Projects (MW)

Suspended Studies (MW)

Grand Total (MW)

Gas-AllOther                         449                         -              6,903
Gas-CombinedCycle                     6,506                         -            12,457
    Total Gas               2,615                   9,790                     6,955                         -            19,360
Nuclear                      -                          -                            -                         -                     -
Coal                      -                          -                     1,165                         -              1,165
Wind               2,748                 13,859                     5,062                         -            21,669
Solar                   395                       719                         150                         -              1,264
Biomass                      -                          -                            -                         -                     -
Storage                      -                       874                           40                         -                  914
Petroleum Coke                      -                          -                            -                         -                     -
Grand Total               5,758                 25,242                   13,372                         -            44,372

Source: ERCOT, Summary of Generation Interconnection Requests, June, 2013.

Teaching Kids to Care

The Beyond Coal project is the top topic in the Lone Star Chapter, and rightfully so. With the Rally for Renewables last Thursday, I had planned on blogging specifically about the Fayette Coal Plant and the potential follow-up options after its future closing. Yeah, sure, why not? It seemed the obvious choice. Until some youngster indicated otherwise.

While filming the rally, I ran into a kid who, despite his fatigue from the heat, readily answered my questions on the state of the environment. I’m afraid that I cannot upload any video here yet, but to provide a quick summary, this little guy said he thought coal is bad for the environment and that people shouldn’t have to breathe the chemicals and ash it pumps into the air. He also said he would want wind and solar energy instead. And he has hardly entered the first grade.

The fact that the kid didn’t have to stop and think about his answers (and that his dad wasn’t prompting him) impressed me most with this interview. His readiness made me recall the importance of raising awareness of the environment in students in primary education. As part of UT Austin’s Club for Environmental Outreach, I have focused on this issue for some time. So, I think the time has come for me to shed some light on this issue.

We at the Sierra Club understand the significance of educating the public on the environment, and we pursue that end tirelessly – just as global conditions tirelessly worsen. The millennials will have the greatest challenge yet in confronting this mounting terror. Should we not focus on involving them in the future of the environment, for their own safety if not for anything else? Many have leapt up in an effort to do this, but not before many sprung up to prevent America’s failing education system from crashing altogether.

I came across a recent NPR article about the popular new “Common Core” standards that have been adopted in 45 states. They might not address scientific educational standards that would include environmental curricula, but these changes at least show some desire to redirect the US education system. It would seem that some hope lay in sight for the nation’s posterity.

But for the generations of future Texans, such hope is about as visible as Rick Perry is credible. Just look to this map of the 45 continental states that have given the green light to Common Core (credit goes to corestandards.org); it probably won’t surprise:

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 11.03.29 PM

Yes, Texas stands alone in the South as one of the 5 stubborn states opposing Common Core. Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that a step forward for Texas education will come soon in science, of all things; I still fear that my nephew will ask me for help with drawing a venn diagram comparing Evolution and Creationism (all eyes still on the Texas State BoE).

On the subject of young students, however, I return to the importance of educating future generations about their environment and how to be eco-friendly. Clearly, the public education system at large cannot commit to this, especially in Texas. So, it is the duty of environmentalists – as members of our local and state communities, as teachers, as big brothers and sisters, as parents, aunts, and uncles – to inform future generations of the looming (and melting) obstacles ahead. If we do not, they might run into calamities of titanic proportions.

Still, the full force of environmentalism cannot inform these students if their core educational principles do not change. So let us take a step back: if public schools cannot educate students on such important issues as the environment, what can it do? Well, for a start, it might better learn how to teach future voters how to form a caring opinion. The voter turn out in the US is increasingly deplorable, and that is no secret. Perhaps this stems from the education system’s paranoia of politics and appearing to take a particular stance. Sorry, Everytown ISD – time to grow a backbone.

No need to herald some political leaning or endorse a candidate here. Just teach kids the importance of forming their own opinions - it’s part of teaching citizenship. More importantly, teach students to inform themselves of their own free will. I do realize that environmentalism ideally would not be considered a “political” issue, since it concerns forces that affect all humans and that no government can control or alter. However, with that in mind, the ideal result of teaching students the value of seeking information in earnest would generate general support for environmentalism. Even more ideally, the US Government would run far more smoothly and voter turn-out would improve as citizens rushed to provide their involved, informed consent at the polls.

I salute the aims of Common Core, but the true goal may be missed here: the time has come for the public education system  to start teaching students how to choose and how to inform themselves with care. Once such values are in place, then we environmentalists can truly turn these millennials into little green men and women by involving and informing them. Perhaps then the government that all too often slows the will of the people, would drive us to a more agreeable – and hopefully, greener – future.

- Harry Watson, Conservation Intern

Rally for Renewables in Austin

SIerra Club members and volunteers outside AUstin CIty Hall on Thursday June 20th.

SIerra Club members and volunteers outside Austin CIty Hall on Thursday June 20th.

Last week, members and volunteers with Sierra Club showed their support at the Rally for Renewables outside of Austin’s City Hall. The event was part of the Beyond Coal Campaign to reduce dependence upon coal burning and increase utilization of wind and solar energy. Why are dirty coal plants a continuing issue in the 21st century? The focus, or heart,  of the rally is to encourage Austin’s mayor and city council to retire the Fayette Power Project and be coal free. The emphasis here is on retire vs selling the plant off and “greenwash” the city into a state of coal free energy. Retiring the plant would ensure the end of the devastating effects the burning of coal from this plant has on our environment. Below are some quick facts to help everyone understand the importance of relieving us of our dependence upon burning coal.

Coal plants are our nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. These emissions of toxins into our environment leads to various forms of climate change.  Various forms of pollution includes: Mercury, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, and Ash.

Toxic Mercury  is released into our atmosphere and then returns to the surface via rain and enters our streams and rivers. Prolonged exposure to Mercury can lead to numerous neurological and heart damaging conditions. An uncontrolled power plant can emit approximately 170 pounds of Mercury ash per year.

Coal plants are the leading source of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) pollution. An uncontrolled power plant can produce up to 14,000 tons of SO2 per year. SO2 accumulation in the atmosphere causes acid rain which leads to the destruction of crops, forests,  and soils, and acidifies our lakes and streams.

Nitrogen Oxide causes ground level smog. An uncontrolled plant can emit over 10,000 tons of Nitrogen Oxides per year. This pollutant is naturally found in the atmosphere, however, human activities such as agriculture, transportation, and industries have been steadily increasing the amount found in the atmosphere.

U.S. Nitrous Oxide Emissions, By Source:

In the US alone, we produce no less than 140 million tons of coal ash pollution. All of that ash has to go somewhere, and in most cases it is dumped in the backyard of these coal plants. This ash can be put into open-air pits or into man-made ponds. Unregulated dump sites can leach these pollutants into the ground and potentially into our ground water systems, by way of aquifers.

Overall, The Rally for Renewables was a success! Numerous volunteers came out to show their support for the cause. The event lasted for nearly 2 hours with many different community members making appearances. This event, just like any like it, is an important demonstration to our local governments. As citizens of this earth, we have the right to have our voices heard, just as they were last week.

Written by: Courtney Dunphy