Coal concerns

Environment | New report stresses negative effects of future coal-fire plant, ignores benefits
by Zachary Abate
Posted 5/27/11, 03:40 pm

Pollution caused by a coal-fire plant proposed for Surry County will lead to 26 premature deaths annually, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation claimed on Monday. In addition to the premature deaths, coal-fire pollution could create over $200 million in health costs every year and threaten drinking water in south Hampton Roads.

"Poor air and water quality in Hampton Roads has already made negative impacts on our region's economy and public health," said CBF Hampton Roads Scientist Chris Moore in the report. "Adding a new source of pollution, when Virginia must comply with new Bay pollution reduction requirements, is irresponsible and counterproductive."

The 26-page report, titled "A Coal Plant's Drain on Health and Wealth," also projects the plant to cause over 400 asthma attacks annually. Pollution in the form of soot particles, mercury, and carbon dioxide will be emitted from the plant's 650-foot smokestacks.

"This air pollution would have a substantial negative impact on many citizens," said Dr. Stephen W. Shield, an asthma specialist in Newport News, who was cited in the report. "Virginia already ranks number six in the nation for mortality from air pollution, and another coal-fired plant-particularly in such a populous area-would make us shoot up that list even further."

But Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, Founder and National Spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, warns that reports such as this one can sometimes be misleading. Calculating the number of deaths brought about by one specific cause is nearly impossible. "It is an extraordinarily difficult task to do in terms of statistical methodology because there are so many other variables that could bring about the same effect, the same kind of diseases," said Beisner. "Therefore, eliminating all of those as possible contributors is very difficult. To point at one specific factor as the cause is almost never justified statistically."

In 2008, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) announced that it was considering construction of a base load electric generation facility. The proposed plant, the Cypress Creek Power Station, would be built in the town of Drendon. ODEC has pitched the project to Surry County as a source of jobs and prosperity for the region. ODEC has received permits for the 1,500-megawatt plant from the Surry County Board of Supervisors, but must wait for approval from several state and federal agencies.

Old Dominion supplies power to 12 member distribution cooperatives in the Mid-Atlantic. The cooperatives provide electricity to half a million homes.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an independent organization dedicated to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, believes the new plant will hamper their efforts to clean up the Bay area. The Foundation estimates that the plant will emit 44 pounds of mercury and 921 pounds of lead each year.

But the projected mercury emissions at Cypress Creek will be much smaller than the mercury emissions from other coal-fire plants throughout the U.S. The EPA, which has not yet set regulation standards on mercury emissions by power plants, estimates that coal-fire stations in U.S. emit a combined 53 tons of mercury every year. A 2004 Department of Environmental Quality report stated that the nine power stations in Virginia combined to produce over 1,300 pounds of mercury emissions each year.

Beisner suggests that while there are dangers associate with coal as an energy source, people should not forget the benefits that coal has. With the high price and shrinking availability of petroleum and natural gas, coal remains an abundant, affordable, and reliable source of energy.

"There is no human activity of any kind that is risk free. If we are looking for zero percent risk, it's just not realistic," said Beisner. "Coal is much safer than it used to be, and it's a whole lot safer than poverty."

According to the World Coal Association, the United States relies on coal for approximately 50 percent of its electricity. Unlike wind and solar power, coal does not depend on weather conditions to generate electricity. Unlike oil and natural gas, coal is abundant and relatively inexpensive.

"If you greatly increase the price of electricity it would greatly decrease the amount of money people have left over, said Beisner. "There are also statistical methods of projecting premature deaths based on reduction in wealth and reduction in GDP per capita."

America has over 250 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves, roughly equivalent to 800 billion barrels of oil. The Cypress Creek Power Station will use the most advanced pollution control technology available, limiting the amount of nitrogen, sulfuric acid, and sulfur dioxide released into the air. According to design plans, the station will remove more than 90 percent of mercury produced. ODEC spent approximately $400 million on environmental protection technology when building the Clover Power Station in Hailfax County. That coal-fire power plant, which opened in 1995, boasts steel reaction vessels that remove 95% of sulfur dioxide emissions and filter facilities that remove 99.9% of fly ash.

"Cypress Creek Power Station will be the most efficient unit in Virginia, producing an equivalent output of electricity as other coal units, but yielding 30 percent less CO2 emissions," states the Cypress Creek Power Station website. Environmental regulations on power plants have tightened drastically over the past two decades, and ODEC must still obtain a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to move the project along. Obtaining an air permit usually takes more than a year as the DEQ determines the plant's control technology, maximum pollutant emissions, and expected air quality.

Read the full Chesapeake Bay Foundation report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Zachary Abate

Zachary is a former WORLD intern.

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