GASP was among the several speakers at Coalfield Justice Day, June 23, 2003 at CONSOL Headquarters near the highway, Rt. 19 & Fort Couch Road, Pittsburgh, PA. Other participants from local groups included Mountain Watershed Association, Sierra Club and Tri-State Citizens Mining Network. This event was part of a multi-group action, with simultaneous protests in KY, PA, and WV.
In Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, streams, springs, farms and homes are sinking after coal companies longwall mine under them, leaving no support for the ground above. In Pennsylvania alone more then 3,200 miles of streams have been affected by various mining practices. In Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, hundreds of thousands of acres of forested mountaintops have been blasted away by coal companies. Another 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by valley fills. Coal-fired power plant emissions and waste pollute our air, ground, and water.
Air Pollution from Coal Combustion (GASP’s Comments)
Coal generates 54% of our electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the U.S. There are many aspects to the damage caused by coal combustion starting with the mining subsidence and acid mine runoff to the disposal of ash that may well have hazardous aspects at the other end of the cycle but in between there is indisputably the production of a huge amount of unhealthy and even deadly air pollution.
Coal fired power plants are among the largest industrial source for nitrogen oxides, a precursor to ground level ozone which can stimulate asthma attacks.
Coal fired power plants are also the largest source of sulfur dioxide which in turn produces sulfates that are very fine particulates. Fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of over 30,000 people each year.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer from asthma attacks, cardiac problems and upper and lower respiratory problems associated with fine particles from power plants. “Metropolitan areas with large populations near coal-fired power plants feel their impacts most acutely – their attributable death rates are much higher than in areas with few or no coal-fired power plants.”  In Pennsylvania, we have a lot of coal fired power plants. “Indeed, 60 percent of the state’s power comes from coal, compared with 50 percent nationwide”, according to Doug Biden of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania. Regulations are making progress but we must do much more.
Of growing concern are toxic air emissions from coal fired power plants such as mercury. According to the 2000 Toxic Release Inventory, Pennsylvania leads the nation in mercury emissions from power plants and power plants are responsible for nearly one third of man-made mercury emissions, comprising the largest industrial source of mercury entering our air. Mercury can stay airborne for up to one year making this not just an American problem but a global problem. In water bodies mercury is turned into methyl mercury, an extremely hazardous substance even in small quantities that is bioaccumulated in fish. Because the mercury in fish, poses a significant neurological health risk to the fetus, pregnant women especially are exposed. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in January 2003 found that 1 in 12 women of childbearing age had mercury levels above the EPA’s safe health threshold. Nineteen states, including Pennsylvania have statewide fish advisories for all of their inland freshwater lakes and/or rivers for at least one species of fish.
Given the serious impact of coal combustion on health, one would expect that our country is dedicated to significantly and rapidly reducing these health risks. But unfortunately, the energy policies the country is perusing hinges strongly on continued use of coal even while strategies for controls of the aforementioned pollutants are being in many cases weakened from the control strategy already on the books in the Clean Air Act. For example, instead of using maximum achievable control technology on every plant which could achieve a 90% reduction by 2007, the Clear Skies Plan would employ a cap program that would allow 15 tons by 2018. This is three times the power plant mercury pollution that would be allowed under implementation of current law and is a delay of ten years.
To safeguard public health, several states have started to move ahead of the federal government. For example, Wisconsin, a state with many lakes and sport fishing activities, is pushing for its own regulations to control mercury because of concern that the federal limits on mercury will not go far enough and will be delayed by court challenges.
Air pollution from coal fired sources is so serious we can not afford a policy that backslides in any way. We may need coal as a fuel source in the short term but we must move forward in Congress to pass legislation which rigorously controls emissions. In the short and long term we must move ahead to invest in other, less damaging energy strategies such as conservation technology and techniques and renewable energy development. This is an old refrain but it does not make it any less valid. The development and implementation of these technologies would give the United States a leadership role in an area where the whole world is looking for solutions. A Presidential contender, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts believes setting a target of 20% energy from renewable sources by 2020 would also provide about 500,000 new jobs. If the federal government can not get this right, then the state of Pennsylvania should undertake its own control measures.
1. Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/CoalvsWind/c01.html
2. Clear The Air: www.cleartheair.org, “Death Disease and Dirty Power”, Abt Associates for Clean Air Taskforce” 10/2000
4. Pittsburgh Tribune Review: “PA ranks among worst states for toxics emissions”, November 18, 2002
6. United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, Fishing for Trouble, June 2003