Five ways cleaning up coal-fired power plants will save Iowans' lives

The best news in Iowa this week came out of a federal courtroom in Cedar Rapids. As Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press, “Iowa’s second-largest power company agreed Wednesday to drastically cut pollution at several coal-fired power plants under a Clean Air Act settlement that’s expected to make the air safer and easier to breathe around the state.” You can read the full consent decree here and the complaint filed against the Alliant Energy subsidiary Interstate Power and Light here.

Huge credit for the victory goes to the Sierra Club Iowa chapter. Foley reports that this federal government enforcement action “started in 2011 when the Sierra Club filed a notice accusing the company [Interstate Power and Light] of violating the Clean Air Act.” The Sierra Club advocates for a range of policies to reduce air pollution and Iowa’s reliance on coal to generate electricity.

I enclose below highlights from Foley’s article and five reasons the changes at the affected power plants will save Iowans’ lives.

The agreement U.S. officials reached with Interstate Power and Light is also an encouraging sign that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule on mercury emissions is at most a temporary setback for clean air. In some communities, the court’s ruling won’t even slow down efforts to convert coal-fired plants to other fuel sources.

If only Governor Terry Branstad, who has often spoken of his desire to make Iowa the “healthiest state,” could recognize the benefits of burning less coal. Although Branstad was happy to bask in the reflected glory of new pollution controls at one of the affected Interstate Power and Light power plants, he welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the mercury rule, which the governor’s office characterized as a “misguided” EPA regulation.  

Foley’s July 15 report for the Associated Press summarized the key points of the Clean Air Act settlement involving Interstate Power and Light:

•The company will continuously operate baghouse and scrubber systems that have been installed at its two largest coal-fired plants in the state, Ottumwa and Lansing, to reduce emissions.

•Additional emission-control equipment will be installed by Dec. 31, 2019, to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at its Ottumwa plant.

•The largest unit at its Prairie Creek Generation Station in Cedar Rapids will convert to natural gas in 2017. Smaller units there will stop burning coal by the end of 2025.

•The Burlington Generation Station will stop burning coal by the end of 2021, transitioning to natural gas or retiring.

•The company will not revive the use of coal at plants in Clinton, Dubuque and Marshalltown, which have already transitioned to natural gas.

How will those steps translate into lives saved?

1. Less sulfur dioxide

Scrubbers installed a few years ago at the Ottumwa Generating Station were estimated to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by roughly 90 percent. That’s great news for Iowans in Wapello County or nearby.

Sulfur emissions form some of the most harmful and environmentally damaging pollutants in our air. Each year, uncontrolled power plants release twice as much sulfur into the air as cars, factories and trucks combined. Most of this power plant sulfur (94% nationally, 99% in the Midwest states) comes from burning coal to produce our electricity. Sulfur air pollutants from power plants include sulfur dioxide (SO2 ), a deadly gas that is toxic to communities near power plants, sulfate particulate matter, unhealthy fine particles that pollute our communities and places hundreds of miles away, and sulfuric acid that damages our environment. These air pollutants are responsible for asthma attacks, heart attacks, lost workdays, school absences and thousands of premature deaths each year.

2. Less nitrogen oxide

Coal combustion and diesel exhaust from the trains and trucks that haul coal to power plants are both major sources of nitrogen oxide emissions. In turn, nitrogen oxides “react with volatile organic compounds in the pres- ence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog.” Both contribute to severe respiratory illnesses, strokes, and some heart conditions; see the table on pages 8 and 9 of “Coal’s Assault on Human Health.”

3. Less fine particulate matter

Coal combustion isn’t the only significant source of fine particulate matter, but coal-fired power plants are one of the leading sources of particulate matter 2.5, which causes asthma and other respiratory problems, strokes, and heart failure.

4. Less coal ash contamination of groundwater

Physicians for Social Responsibility found,

The storage of post-combustion wastes from coal plants also threatens human health. There are 584 coal ash dump sites in the U.S.,9 and toxic residues have migrated into water supplies and threatened human health at dozens of these sites.

An Environmental Integrity Project report from 2011 examined groundwater contamination from coal ash waste sites in ten states. Researchers found “peak concentrations of pollutants measured in groundwater at 19 sites not previously identified.” Two of those disposal sites were in Iowa; one was the Prairie Creek Generating Station (which will be converted to natural gas under the terms of the agreement reached this week).

5. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions

Coal-fired power plants are the energy sector’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing Iowa’s carbon footprint is one small part of the battle to mitigate climate change. In a comprehensive 2009 report, Physicians for Social Responsibility explained why climate change poses severe threats to human health, and why coal combustion is a major contributor to illnesses and deaths caused by climate disruption.

Bonus benefit, life-enhancing if not life-saving:

6. Less mercury in the environment

Coal-fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S.

A few years ago, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project ranked the Ottumwa plant among the top 20 percent of U.S. power plants in mercury emissions. The same report named the Prairie Creek Generation Station in Cedar Rapids among the top 20 percent for lead emissions. A separate report by the Environmental Integrity Project included an appendix listing estimated annual mercury emissions at all the coal-fired power plants operated by investor-owned utilities in Iowa. Interstate Power and Light’s Ottumwa plant had the second-highest mercury output in Iowa, while the facility in Lansing (Allamakee County) was sixth.

Mercury has not been established as a carcinogen but causes major neurodevelopmental problems, particularly in fetuses, infants, and children.

We can’t point to any individual in Iowa and say that person is alive today because lower amounts of air pollution from coal combustion didn’t cause a heart attack, stroke, or fatal respiratory event. Nevertheless, the conversion of some coal-fired plants and installation of stack scrubbers at others has surely prevented some premature deaths and will continue to do so.

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