The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is in the middle of a fascinating eight-day series called Mapping Mortality that focuses on the public health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources in southwestern Pennsylvania. As reported in the first three days of the series, southwestern Pennsylvania has elevated levels of respiratory disease, lung cancer, and heart disease that appears to be connected to heightened levels of air pollution in the region caused by coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources.
These air pollution problems are not limited to southwestern Pennsylvania. Instead, throughout the country there are more than 400 coal-fired power plants that were built 30 to 60 years ago, well over half of which continue to operate today without modern pollution controls needed to protect public health. The impacts of pollution from these plants, many of which are located in dense urban areas such as Cleveland and Chicago, is staggering, including:
* 13,200 Premature Deaths: In a report entitled the Toll From Coal, the Clean Air Task Force and researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that there are 13,200 premature deaths caused every year from particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.
* Mercury Contamination: Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions, which is a toxic pollutant that causes neurological development problems in fetuses and infants. These mercury emissions deposit in rivers, lakes, and streams, cause fish to have elevated mercury levels, and have led to fish consumption advisories on virtually every river, lake, and stream in the Midwest.
* 10,800 Cancers: As of 2002, hazardous air pollutants caused an average elevated lifetime cancer risk of 36 per million people, which works out to approximately 10,800 extra cancers natiowide.
* Exacerbating Climate Change: Coal-fired power plants are the largest source in the U.S. of greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary contributor to climate change.
The good news it that the U.S. EPA is embarking on an effort to drastically reduce such air pollution by promulgating regulations that will finally require these aging coal-fired power plants to clean up or shut down. Unfortunately, the Agency is facing a major backlash from industry, Republicans, and some Democrats, who are seeking to restrict or remove U.S. EPA’s authority to require stricter emissions controls and cleaner air.
Check back tomorrow when we will discuss what steps U.S. EPA is taking to require coal plants to clean up, and what you can do to fight back against the conservative backlash.