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.

From Rood’s report:

Iowa burns coal disproportionate to its size, according to the physicians’ group. The state is 30th in population, but 16th in coal power generation.

The state has 72 operating coal-fired power stations. Several are among the oldest and most polluting units in the nation.

The Washington, D.C.-based group contends Iowans suffer a disproportionate health and environmental burden from the concentration of burning coal across the state. It also says coal ash and mercury are taking a heaving toll on the state’s water quality.

Over the past year, Iowa Independent has published many outstanding reports on coal ash disposal in Iowa. I recommend reading the latest piece by Jason Hancock: “Effects of coal ash contamination go beyond health risks.”

It’s clear that coal-fired power plants extract a huge toll on public health. Creating financial incentives to move away from coal as a source of electricity isn’t “unfair,” especially since low-income Americans could receive increased subsidies for utility bills.

What’s “unfair” is for corporations and politicians to fight for the status quo, without regard for the Iowans who die prematurely or suffer from preventable health problems because of coal.

In one blog post I can’t do justice to the extensively documented report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, but here’s one more excerpt from the executive summary (pdf file):

A nationwide study of blood samples in 1999-2000 showed that 15.7% of women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that would cause them to give birth to children with mercury levels exceeding the EPA’s maximum acceptable dose for mercury. This dose was established to limit the number of children with mercury-related neurological and developmental impairments. Researchers have estimated that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to impair performance on neurodevelopmental tests and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.

When conservatives who supposedly want to protect unborn children stop clamoring for more coal-fired power plants in Iowa, I’ll take them more seriously.

You don’t have to believe in global warming to recognize the dangers of relying on coal and the benefits of moving toward cleaner ways to generate electricity.  

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