What's unfair to residents of coal-dependent states?

Politicians in both parties have complained that proposed federal climate change bills are “unfair” to Midwestern states, which rely largely on coal to generate electricity. Utility companies and corporate groups have tried to reinvent themselves as defenders of the public interest against those who would unjustly “punish” consumers living in coal-dependent states.

Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week on “Coal’s Assault on Human Health.” This report should be required reading for all members of Congress, especially Senator Tom Harkin and other Democrats who have demanded more subsidies for coal-burning utilities in the climate-change bill. From the executive summary (pdf file):

Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. […] Each step of the coal lifecycle–mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes–impacts human health. Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the U.S. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.

In yesterday’s Des Moines Register, Lee Rood highlighted some of the extra burdens Iowans bear because of coal-fired power plants. Follow me after the jump for more.

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Be thankful coal plants in Iowa were shelved

For those who are still upset that new coal-fired power plants will not be built near Marshalltown and Waterloo, I recommend reading Jason Hancock’s recent article at Iowa Independent:

People who live near near sites used to store ash or sludge from coal-fired power plants have a one in 50 chance of developing cancer, according to a just released government report kept from the public for seven years by the Bush Administration.

The data, compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and released Thursday by the watchdog groups Earth Justice and the Environmental Integrity Project, suggests that environmental contamination from the storage sites could last for a century or longer. […]

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the waste produced by burning coal. The nation’s power plants produce enough ash to fill 1 million railroad cars a year, according to a 2006 report by the National Research Council. Coal-burning power plants in Iowa produce 20,000 to 30,000 tons of coal ash every year. The Hawkeye State also imports coal ash from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

As the new study shows, neighbors of coal ash storage sites have an elevated cancer risk even when those sites are functioning normally. Occasional catastrophes like last December’s huge spill in Tennessee add to the contamination problems, but even if all accidents could be prevented, heavy metals and other pollutants would still leach into groundwater at many sites.

I’ve written before about the respiratory problems and premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter, and coal-fired power plants are a leading source of that kind of air pollution.

Now we have proof that solid waste from coal-fired power plants endangers human health too.

Iowa is fortunate not to have two new coal-burning facilities under construction. Those would have been a 50-year investment in the wrong direction, adversely affecting air quality, water quality and of course greenhouse gas emissions.

There is still no such thing as clean coal.

Iowans will be better served by meeting our demand for electricity through clean renewable production as well as conservation and energy efficiency measures.

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Yes, the Waterloo coal plant is dead

On Saturday I asked whether the proposed coal-fired power plant near Waterloo was dead now that Dynegy has pulled out of a joint venture with LS Power and Associates.

I am pleased to bring you the answer to the question:

LS POWER AFFILIATE WILL FOREGO FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF ELK RUN ENERGY STATION

01/06/2009

WATERLOO, IOWA (January 6, 2009) – LS Power affiliate, Elk Run Energy Associates, LLC, announced today that it will forego further development of the Elk Run Energy Station in Waterloo, Iowa.

Given the slowing load growth in the region due to the current downturn in the U.S. economy, and the fact that LS Power has more advanced projects under development in the region that could serve the same need, the Company will redirect its development efforts to other projects.

“Elk Run Energy has been a proud member of the Greater Cedar Valley community, and appreciates the unwavering support of so many individuals and organizations throughout the development process,” said Mark Milburn, Assistant Vice President of LS Power.

LS Power continues to develop a portfolio of coal, natural gas, wind and solar generation facilities and transmission projects with ongoing development activities in Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and other locations.

Did you catch that bit about “slowing load growth” in the region? That means that future electricity usage is projected to be lower than previously thought, because of the current recession. People are tightening their belts, and conserving energy is a good way to save money. We could do even more on this front with aggressive state or federal policies on energy efficiency.

Thanks again to all the environmental and community advocates who helped doom the Elk Run project. One coal-fired power plant down, one to go.

Will Alliant and its subsidiary IPL keep trying to build a new coal plant near Marshalltown? I don’t know, but it’s worth noting that Dynegy’s stock went up 19 percent the day they withdrew from the joint venture on developing new coal plants. Alliant’s stock price could use a shot in the arm right now.

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Is the Waterloo coal plant dead?

The Houston Chronicle reported on January 2:

Stingy credit markets and high regulatory hurdles have spurred Houston-based Dynegy to step back from new coal-fired power plant projects by ending a joint venture with LS Power Associates.

Dynegy will keep the right to expand its 27 existing coal, natural gas and oil-fired plants in 13 states, and it retains stakes in a pair of Texas and Arkansas coal projects.

But Dynegy will pay New York-based LS Power $19 million as part of the split and let it take full ownership of new projects under consideration in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and Nevada.

Shares of Dynegy closed up 38 cents, or 19 percent, to $2.38 on Friday.

Dynegy Chairman and CEO Bruce Williamson said the power plant development landscape has changed since the company entered into the joint venture with LS in the fall of 2006. Funding new projects is much more difficult given the worldwide credit crunch and the possibility of new climate change legislation under the Obama administration.

“In light of these market circumstances, Dynegy has elected to focus development activities and investments around our own portfolio where we control the option to develop and can manage the costs being incurred more closely,” Williamson said in a statement.

Here is the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier’s take on the story:

The future of a proposed coal-fired power plant near Waterloo became a little cloudier Friday when Texas-based Dynegy Inc. announced that it and New Jersey-based LS Power Associates were dissolving their joint venture to develop that plant and others in several states.

The move transfers to LS Power full ownership and developmental rights associated with various “greenfield” projects in several states, including the 750-megawatt Elk Run Energy Station proposed for construction northeast of Waterloo.

[…]

Separation from Dynegy puts the Elk Run plans in doubt, said Don Shatzer, a member of Community Energy Solutions, which opposes the Elk Run Energy project.

“LS Power has no experience developing/operating coal plants and so is unlikely to proceed (without) a new partner,” Shatzer said in an e-mail note.

Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, shares Shatzer’s opinion, according to The Houston Chronicle.

This sounds quite promising, although neither the Houston Chronicle nor the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier were able to get a comment from LS Power on whether it will continue to pursue this project.

Incidentally, the Waterloo plant is not needed to meet Iowa’s energy demand; most of the electricity the plant would have generated would have gone out of state.

Many thanks to all those who have worked hard to prevent this plant from being built, notably the Waterloo-based grassroots organization Community Energy Solutions, the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, Plains Justice of Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa Environmental Council (with which I am involved).

Well-organized activists helped prevented LS Power from annexing some farmland for the coal-fired plant.

In March 2008, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied a construction permit for the project. Apparently the county zoning for that land was not in order, so the DNR concluded that LS Power “hadn’t met our requirement to have the full ability to put the power plant on that property.”

These small victories were not themselves enough to kill the project. However, the setbacks delayed the process until “external credit and regulatory factors that make development much more uncertain” prompted Dynegy to walk away.

Lesson for environmental activists: it is worth exercising every legal option to put up obstacles to a bad project.

Lesson for Alliant, which wants to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown: Dynegy’s stock shot up 19 percent in one day after they pulled out of the joint venture with LS Power. The market favors abandoning new coal projects. Dropping your plans to build a power plant near Marshalltown would not only be good for public health and the environment, it could boost your stock price.

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Yet another reason to oppose new coal-fired power plants in Iowa

I thought I was well-informed about the environmental hazards of coal-fired power plants until I read about

a massive flood of toxic coal sludge from a dam that burst at a local coal company’s processing plant in Tennessee yesterday.

The spill covered as many as 400 acres of land with toxic ash as high as six feet deep.

Click the link to see footage of the disaster, and think about sludge containing mercury, arsenic and lead covering hundreds of acres of land and seeping into the water supply.

Matt Stoller called  it an “environmental 9/11 in Tennessee” and noted that waters in eastern Kentucky where a similar spill occurred in October 2000 are still unable to support aquatic life. Years later, people in the area do not drink the tap water.

We do not need to build any new coal-fired power plants. On the contrary, we should aggressively promote clean, renewable energy production and conservation measures to reduce future demand for electricity.

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Emperor "Clean Coal" has no clothes

A Siegel has a great diary up on a new television advertising campaign launched by the “Reality Coalition” today to convey this message: “In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.” I love the use of humor in the ad:

After the jump, I’ve posted the whole press release issued by the Reality Coalition. You can sign up to join their effort by clicking here.

My only concern about this message is that it suggests greenhouse-gas emissions are the only thing that makes coal “dirty.” Coal-fired power plants are not only a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, they are also one of the leading sources of fine particulate matter linked to asthma and other respiratory problems. This fine particulate matter, also known as particulate matter 2.5, “is much smaller in size and a more serious health hazard” than larger soot particles known as particulate matter 10.

Even if greenhouse gases and all other pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants could be controlled, coal mining itself would still create adverse environmental impacts. Making coal “clean” would require a lot more than capturing the carbon emissions.

Quibbles aside, I think this commercial is outstanding and look forward to more from the Reality Coalition.

I hope that future advertising will directly combat the coal industry’s claim that we need new coal plants to meet future demand for electricity. In April, Iowa regulators approved Alliant’s application to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown, and later explained that they did so because they think renewable energy sources will not be sufficient to meet Iowa’s base-load electricity needs in the future.

The environmental movement needs to convince not only the public but also policy-makers from Barack Obama down to state-level regulators that Al Gore’s vision of ending our reliance on carbon-based fuels is realistic.

UPDATE: A commenter at MyDD pointed me to a recent report from Greenpeace called The True Cost of Coal. It contains much more information about health and environmental hazards associated with mining and burning coal.  

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