The following is in response to an op-ed titled ‘EPA coal plant rule could cost U.S. jobs’ that ran in The Morning Call on Monday, August 22 2011. It was published in The Morning Call, with a few minor changes, on Thursday, August 25 2011, under the headline ‘EPA coal regulations necessary to protect people’s health’
John P. Nelson’s recent column titled ‘EPA coal plant rule could threaten U.S. jobs’ left me confused. He seems to be saying that coal-fired power plants are good because the electricity is cheap, because they emit less pollution than they did 40 years ago, and because they provide jobs—and that proposed regulations threaten these advantages. Professor Nelson accuses the EPA of missing the “bigger picture” and “overstating the benefits”, but I believe that’s exactly what Professor Nelson did. Let’s look at each of his claims.
Yes, coal has been the cheapest way to generate electricity, but this is because the true costs are hidden, passed on to consumers in inflated health costs and environmental cleanup costs charged to taxpayers. In effect, we are using tax and healthcare dollars to subsidize these dirty operations, creating an artificial demand for coal.
Other costs come from the mining process. When companies extract resources—coal, natural gas, oil, or uranium—to generate energy, they create even more hidden costs and dangers. With coal, both deep mines and mountaintop-removal mining pollute the water, air, and land upon which we all depend for life itself. Pennsylvania has a long legacy of disease and death from coal mining; today, mountaintop removal mining is destroying the health and lives of thousands of people throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, and other states.
Professor Nelson is correct when he says that power plants emit far less pollution than they did 40 years ago, but most of the improvement he cites came over 20 years ago—and all the progress we’ve seen is the result of stronger EPA regulations. There is no doubt that coal is the dirtiest energy source in the country when it comes to toxic emissions. Even today, coal-fired power plants spew millions of tons—yes, millions of Tons—of poisons into the air each year, including mercury, lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, benzene, acids, dioxins, and other toxic compounds. These power plants generate birth defects, illness, and death, not just electricity. Independent analyses in 2010 for the Clean Air Task Force found that in addition to causing a variety of serious health problems, coal-fired power plants still kill over 13,000 innocent people each year.
Does Professor Nelson advocate giving serial killers a free pass because they’re not killing quite as many people as they did in the past? That’s what he’s recommending for these killers.
I agree with Professor Nelson that jobs are important, but his analysis is oversimplified, ignoring the fact that modernizing plants and creating sustainable alternatives would also create even more high-quality jobs. And it ignores the fact that we don’t need jobs that harm and kill people, weakening our communities instead of making them stronger and more resilient.
Finally, Professor Nelson argues against stricter regulations. It’s true that forcing power plant operators to operate without harming people would increase the price of electricity—but is he suggesting that those who don’t use coal-powered electricity should continue to pay those costs in higher taxes and health care costs? Good regulation saves thousands of lives each year and eliminates these hidden costs we all wind up paying! That’s why the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act did so much to improve the quality of life for millions.
As a case in point, let’s look at the GenOn power plant in nearby Portland: Our Senators and Congressman Dent supported additional time for GenOn to bring it into compliance, and editorials have supported this action. But let’s remember that pollution from this plant is so bad that it makes people sick and even kills people; for years it has been listed as one of the worst polluters in the entire country. The highly-regarded Clean Air Task Force <www.catf.us> calculates pollution from this one plant results in hundreds of asthma attacks, dozens of heart attacks, and about 30 deaths per year. The only reason it hasn’t been cleaned up is that the owners decided that higher profits were more important than the health and lives of those forced to breathe the toxic poisons it spews into the air.
So let’s take sensible actions that help create productive jobs, but let’s not support jobs and industries that undermine health and life.
Peter Crownfield is a founding member of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley and coordinates its internship program and sustainability & health initiative.