Coal's Body Count

At least 240 premature deaths per year – roughly 12,000 over the next 50 years – will be caused by toxic pollution from the 19 coal-fired power plants proposed for construction statewide, according to a report released last week. Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office, which commissioned the report along with the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, called the report's predicted death toll "an unacceptable price to pay for power" and said "there are cheaper, cleaner, and cooler alternatives that could be used to meet Texas' needs for electrical energy."

The analysis for the report, titled Premature Mortality From Proposed New Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas, was conducted by Wisconsin-based MSB Energy Associates Inc. using an EPA model and emissions figures from individual permit applications filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The actual killers, says the report, are fine particles or particulate matter: soot, acid droplets, or metals originating from combustion sources such as power plants or diesel trucks. Particulates can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream, evading the body's natural defenses and causing respiratory and cardiac damage and possibly cancer. The report said researchers have demonstrated particulate-related mortality at low concentrations and that victims lose an average of 14 years of life. Based on the EPA-established $6 million economic cost per premature death, the report found the total cost to be more than $1.4 billion per year and nearly $72 billion over the plants' life spans.

Singled out by the report was Dallas mega-utility TXU, planning 11 of the 19 total pulverized coal plants statewide (the other, proposed by another utility, is an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, aka "clean coal plant," technology TXU claims is too advanced to build). The report says pollution from TXU's plants is expected to cause 177 premature mortalities per year and 8,869 over the lifetimes of its plants – equaling 73% of the premature deaths from all the plants.

TXU spokeswoman Kimberley Morgan, in an e-mailed response said, "Our families live near these plants, and we care about the health and safety of our employees and communities. We operate in a way consistent with all environmental rules and regulations to protect human health. TXU is actually reducing key emissions." TCEQ spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler reiterated TXU's claim that it will cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (smog and ozone causers, which include particulates, or "PM") by 20% if its new plants are permitted. Under those circumstances, "we don't expect an increase in PM, and we don't expect an increase in premature mortality," she said, adding that "Texas is currently in compliance with PM standards." Asked how the agency would ensure that TXU makes its promised reductions, TCEQ Spokesman Terry Clawson said he was unsure. TXU's Morgan asserted that "there is no link between current power plant emissions and human health impacts."

Contrarily, Dr. Lisa Doggett, director of Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility said, "Already, we are seeing more deaths from pollution than from drunk driving or murder. In Texas, as a result of global warming and pollution from coal plants, we can expect more frequent and severe asthma attacks, more strokes, and worsening of heart and lung problems. Patients with asthma and chronic lung disease already crowd the waiting room of my clinic, and emergency rooms across our state." In Austin, she said, the new plants would translate to more ozone-related asthma and breathing ailments, especially in kids. Rancher Paul Rolke, who lives between Waco and College Station, about 12 miles from the existing Twin Oaks coal plant, founded Robertson County Our Land Our Lives (www.ourlandourlives.net) to fight the massive TXU Oak Grove plant, which would be six miles from his home. "We knew all along that there was a body count from these plants. Now we have the data to quantify it," he said. "I hope this will wake up our neighbors, many of whom have been persuaded that the plants are a good thing based on the promise of jobs and economic development, and by TXU's relentless PR campaign, which spins the facts faster than the steam turbines they are building."

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