Apparently cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants is at least twice as expensive as it seems when the costs of illness and death from air pollution are factored in, according to a new Chesapeake Bay Foundation report. These billions of dollars in health-related costs from coal pollution, if accounted for, would make clean energy, from wind and solar power, more economically competitive.
The report, “A Coal Plant’s Drain on Health and Wealth,” examines a proposal by the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) to construct the largest coal-fired power plant ever built in Virginia: the 1,500 megawatt Cypress Creek Power Station in Dendron, about 40 miles west from the populous Hampton Roads metropolitan area in southeast Virginia.
Microscopic soot-like particles from the plant’s smokestacks would cause a projected 26 premature deaths a year, as well as 23 asthma emergency room visits, 40 heart attacks, 442 asthma attacks, 3,340 lost work days, and 19,903 days a year in which people will have to reduce their activities because they are sick, according to energy industry analyst David Schoengold, who used pollution figures supplied by the power company.
The total cost to society of these illnesses and deaths would be about $208 million a year –- or more than $6 billion over 30 years, according to the CBF report.
“This air pollution would have a substantial negative impact on many citizens in this area with asthma,” said Dr. Stephen W. Shield (pictured at right), an asthma and allergy specialist who practices in Newport News and is quoted in the CBF report. “Virginia already ranks number six in the nation for mortality from air pollution, and another coal fired power plant -– particularly in such a populous area -- would make us shoot up that list even further.”
Because of these pollution and health problems, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation joins with the American Lung Association in Virginia, the Virginia Asthma Coalition and many others in urging Virginia and the federal government not to approve permits that would allow construction of the proposed ODEC power plant.
An estimated 20,000 heart attacks and 13,200 premature deaths a year across the U.S. are caused by fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants. The annual cost of these illnesses and deaths has been estimated at between $62 billion and $100 billion, with the toll falling heaviest on children and the elderly.
Overall, if the health and environmental impacts of coal’s full lifecycle are accounted for -– including the costs of extraction, processing, and combustion -– the cost to the U.S. public would be as much as a half trillion dollars annually. Taking all of these costs into account would at least double the price of electricity generated from coal, and make clean energy, from wind or solar power, more economically competitive, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation report.
On December 17, 2008, ODEC applied to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for an air pollution control permit for the plant in Dendron, Virginia, or a nearby alternative site. The company asked for more time on September 24, 2010, saying it was withdrawing the permit application and would re-apply in 18 to 24 months, when the nation’s economic and regulatory landscape become clearer.
Since then, the company has publicly indicated that it intends to move forward with the project.
The construction of the plant would be harmful for the whole region, and not just for human health reasons. The power plant would pollute the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries with several contaminants, including mercury, which taints fish, and nitrogen oxides, which feed low-oxygen “dead zones,” according to the CBF report.
ODEC is proposing to build a landfill for its waste ash in the floodplain of the Blackwater River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Norfolk. This would create a risk that flooding could wash toxic metals into the waterway. Aquatic life in the Blackwater River could also be at risk, according to the CBF report.
“They should not build the landfill there,” in the flood plain, Dr. H. Anna Jeng, an associate professor of environmental health at Old Dominion University who is quoted in the report. “This is an environmental hazard waiting to happen. It could contaminate the water with arsenic, mercury, and chromium, among other metals.”
The ODEC plant would also contribute to ground-level ozone problems in the Hampton Roads and Richmond areas, and release 11.7 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. This greenhouse gas contributes to climate change and rising sea levels, which threaten the Chesapeake Bay’s sinking shorelines and wetlands.
To read the complete report, click here.
What is your opinion? If you were a government official, would you allow the construction of this plant? Vote yes or no, and explain why in a comment.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation