Cutting coal power will save many lives, EPA says

While opponents say the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon emissions will cost jobs and bring higher electric bills, supporters of the proposal have a counter-argument: beneficial health effects.

Dr. LeRoy Graham
Dr. LeRoy Graham

The EPA is holding hearings in Atlanta and three other cities this week on its plan for reducing power plants’ carbon emissions.

Those in favor of the changes say that as coal plants shut down or are replaced with cleaner natural gas, there will be fewer conventional pollutants in the air. Specifically, that means fewer lung-damaging particulates and less ground-level ozone, or smog.

The EPA expects that the resulting cleaner air will mean fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations, and 2,700 to 6,600 fewer premature deaths per year by 2030.

Dr. LeRoy Graham, a pediatric pulmonologist who practices in the Atlanta area, said Tuesday in a GHN interview that as the carbon “footprint” in the air increases, “people with lung problems are suffering more. The health threats are increasing.’’

Graham said that the poor, the young and the old are disproportionately affected by ozone and other kinds of air pollution. African Americans have a high rate of asthma, he added.

Atlanta consistently ranks in the Top 10 cities in terms of the prevalence of asthma, he said. Graham cited the city’s traffic congestion as among factors exacerbating the health condition and the number of children’s hospital admissions related to it.

By not addressing carbon pollution, Graham said, “we’re mortgaging the future of our children.’’

On Tuesday, rallies and marches were held in downtown Atlanta, where the EPA hearing took place.

Under the plan, the EPA will set individual state-by-state carbon emissions goals. States can propose a variety of measures to hit those targets.

Federal officials have never before tried to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

The EPA’s proposal seeks to cut carbon emissions nationwide 30 percent by 2030. Georgia, home to some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country, must reduce even more during that time. The nation’s largest single source of carbon emissions is Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Scherer, just north of Macon.

Georgia once produced more than half of its electricity from coal-fired plants. But coal produced just over a third of the state’s energy in April, the AP reported.

The EPA says power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, making up roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

From the soot and smog reductions alone, for every dollar invested through the Clean Power Plan, American families will see up to $7 in health benefits, the EPA says.

An argument over jobs

Opponents of the EPA plan have stressed the impact of the proposed rules on the economy, and they were vocal about it this week.

“These rules if they are adopted, we believe, they will kill thousands of jobs and they will raise electricity bills in Georgia,” Joel Foster with Americans for Prosperity Georgia told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

State Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta) said at the Atlanta EPA hearing Tuesday that “if coal comes off the trains, all the other products that ride on the trains are going to get more expensive in your department store, in your grocery store. If you don’t believe that that will have a negative impact on the economy, then we just differ.”

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols said the EPA proposal would eliminate jobs, raise utility bills, and was a clear example of government overreach, WABE reported.

“We’re the No. 1 market for the Nissan Leaf, we’re the fastest-growing solar [energy] state and we’ve done that without a mandate, without a rule. So why does the EPA need to accelerate things so quickly and put economic hardship on our state,” said Echols.

Members of the Public Service Commission say the changes will raise electricity prices. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Commission Chairman Chuck Eaton told Morris News last month.

The conflict over the carbon rules does not split evenly across partisan lines, AP reported. Former administrators of the EPA under Republican presidents recently testified that more action is needed on global warming. Meanwhile, some interest groups typically aligned with Democrats have split from Obama’s plan. (In West Virginia, where coal is a major industry, both Democratic and Republican politicians complain that federal regulators are punishing their state economically by trying to limit its use.)

Electric utilities have already started decreasing their reliance on coal because of earlier environmental rules and because natural gas is so cheap.

As recently as 2011, 62 percent of Georgia Power’s generation came from coal, but it dropped to 35 percent last year.

Janice Nolan of the American Lung Association, who testified Tuesday at the Atlanta hearing, told GHN by reducing carbon further, “we’ll save more lives.”

Young Women looking at cityscape
Smog in Atlanta is visible on many days from the top of Stone Mountain.

According to a Lung Association report, the nation now has far less of both ozone and particle pollution than in the past, thanks to the Clean Air Act.

Since the 1970s, Nolan said, “We’ve shown we can reduce pollution and not harm the economy.”

Still, more than 147.6 million people live in counties where monitors show unhealthy levels of ozone, particle pollution or both — meaning the air a family breathes could shorten life or cause lung cancer, the Lung Association says.

Ozone is the most widespread air pollutant in the U.S., causing asthma attacks and premature deaths, Nolan said.

Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, told the EPA hearing: “If we want a cleaner, safer future for our kids, we can’t afford to ignore power plants’ outsized contribution to global warming. For Georgia, tackling the problem means cleaning up the dirtiest power plants.’’

The EPA’s Atlanta hearing continues Wednesday.