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Area power-plant soot kills 369 yearly, study says'

October 17, 2000

By Randy Lee Loftis
The Dallas Morning News

Soot from power-plant emissions causes an estimated 369 deaths and 10,500 asthma attacks in metropolitan Dallas each year, according to a national study to be released Tuesday.

The deaths are among an estimated 30,000 nationwide that can be attributed to tiny particles of pollution from power plants, mostly those that burn coal, consultants said in a study commissioned by environmental groups.

"Requiring 75 percent cuts in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides could save about 18,000 of those people a year, according to the study led by Abt Associates, a consulting firm that does similar work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

"What we're asking for is to have the older [power] plants meet modern standards," said Conrad Schneider of the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based national environmental coalition that hired the consultants.

A spokesman for Dallas-based TXU Electric, Texas' biggest utility, said the company had seen only parts of the study. But he said the company's sulfur dioxide emissions are already 28 percent below the national average and will be reduced by an additional 25 percent.

"We are one of the leaders in reducing these emissions", said the spokesman, Rand LaVonn. "We are committed to clean air."

Three TXU coal-burning plants – Big Brown in Freestone County, Monticello in Titus County and Martin Lake in Rusk County – are among the state's biggest.

The electric power industry says it already has cut soot-causing pollution far beyond the requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Requiring further cuts would not be economically or scientifically justified, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group.

But the Clean Air Task Force said power-plant emissions of soot-causing sulfur dioxide have crept up since 1995. The coalition called on Congress to end a 30-year-old federal policy that lets older, "grandfathered" power plants meet less-stringent standards than newer plants.

Texas has a similar provision under state law. Presidential candidates Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore say they support cutting pollution from power plants.

"We like that", Mr. Schneider said.

EPA officials withheld comment until they could review the study.

Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, said arguments over the study's details were less important than its overall finding that air pollution is a confirmed public health threat. He endorsed the Clean Air Task Force's call for federal action to cut power-plant pollution by 75 percent.

"We think that makes a lot of sense", Mr. Saitas said.

The Clean Air Task Force hired a team of consultants to quantify the health impacts of fine particles from power plants. Researchers isolated emissions from different types of sources, mostly power plants and diesel exhaust, to determine the power plants' share.

The consultants first analyzed emissions figures and factored in pollution cuts that are already in the works or are anticipated, including new acid-rain rules. Then they studied where the airborne pollution goes.

Finally, they used the findings of numerous health studies to estimate deaths, illnesses and days of missed work or reduced activity from power-plant pollution.

In each case, the consultants said, they used methods that were identical to or consistent with the EPA's methods. The three consulting firms have done similar studies for the EPA that have gone through scientific peer reviews.

The consultants concluded that fine particulates from power plants – solid or liquid particles far too small to be seen without a microscope – are responsible for more than 30,000 premature deaths and 603,000 asthma attacks in the United States each year.

The death and illness figures are estimates based on the findings of numerous university and government studies that linked different levels of pollution to health effects. Death estimates do not reflect autopsy reports. Health researchers say most pollution-related deaths are officially attributed to other causes, such as emphysema, asthma or heart attack.

The study ranked the metropolitan Dallas area 13th nationwide in the number of power-plant-related deaths and hospitalizations, with 369 and 247 respectively. Dallas ranked seventh in the number of asthma attacks attributable to power plants, with 10,500 cases per year.

New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta had the most total deaths, according to the study.

The biggest problems, the consultants found, are in states with big populations and the most coal-burning power plants. Pennsylvania had the highest number of deaths, an estimated 2,250 a year, followed by Ohio and New York.

Texas ranked ninth in the overall number of deaths, with an estimated 1,310 a year. Most of those were in the eastern part of the state, which has most of Texas' coal-burning power plants.

Texas fared better when the consultants compared the number of deaths with the states' populations. Texas had an estimated 11.5 deaths per 100,000 people, 32nd out of the 48 contiguous states that were analyzed.

Deaths per capita were concentrated in the coal-dependent regions of the Southeast and the lower Ohio River Valley, led by Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee.

The consultants also provided a breakdown of the benefits of reducing pollution from those plants. Based on 75 percent cutbacks, they said, deaths would be reduced nationwide by 18,000 a year, or almost two-thirds.

The study's conclusions may conflict with preliminary findings of ongoing research on Atlanta's air pollution, a study being funded by electric companies. So far, the Atlanta study suggests that what the tiny soot particles are made of might be more important than their size, said Tina Bahadori, air-quality studies manager for the Electric Power Research Institute.

"This is not to exonerate power plants," Ms. Bahadori said. "It could be that we wind up with a need for more [emissions] controls."

Mr. Saitas of the Texas state agency said the need for more pollution cuts was clear. "It doesn't matter if it's 1,300 deaths or 130", he said. "If you've got a problem, you've got to fix it."

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