Stop Washington state coal-energy production
Washington state should opt wherever possible for cleaner, healthier energy, writes guest columnist Howard Frumkin. He argues a state legislative proposal to phase out coal production is a no-brainer, considering the risks of coal production and use.
Special to The Times
ENERGY policy is health policy. While we all need to use energy, not all of it is equal. Some ways of producing and using energy make people sick, while others are far more benign. To protect public health and to save on health-care costs, we should choose the healthier path.
Coal tops the list of dangerous energy sources. While our state is a national leader in using safe, clean energy — three-quarters of Washington's electricity comes from hydroelectric sources, and more from wind, wood and wood waste — it is also home to a coal-fired power plant. The TransAlta Corporation's Centralia Big Hanaford plant in Lewis County dates from the early 1970s. With a capacity of 1,340 megawatts, it can power a medium-sized city. Most of its energy is sold to out-of-state users.
The good news is that TransAlta's plant may soon stop burning coal. Recently proposed state legislation, House Bill 1825, would phase out the use of coal for electrical generation over the next few years. As a public-health measure, this is a no-brainer — right up there with treating high blood pressure, immunizing children and assuring clean water and safe food.
What is so dangerous about coal? The story starts with coal mining, one of the most hazardous jobs; coal miners face substantial risks of injury and the infamous "black lung" disease. Communities near coal mines suffer from polluted air and water.
Hauling coal from mines to power plants is also risky business. Coal is unique as an energy source because it entails long-distance transport of vast quantities of heavy material. Any train can derail, of course, but when coal accounts for large amounts of cargo, it contributes substantially to the aggregate risk. Major coal-train derailments in the last year — in Melrose, Iowa, in August; near Quantico, Va., a week later; near Jefferson City, Mo., early this month, to name a few — hurled train cars and their contents across large areas. Coal train crashes kill people with disturbing frequency, as occurred near Lewellen, Neb., on Valentine's Day.
As coal is burned, the health risks pile up. Air pollutants such as oxides of sulfur and nitrogen threaten cardiac and respiratory health. Tiny particles — some that rise directly from the smokestacks, others that form in the air from combustion products — penetrate deeply into people's lungs, triggering heart disease deaths. Toxic components of coal such as mercury settle onto land and in waterways, enter the food chain and damage people's nervous systems.
And carbon dioxide, formed when coal is burned, may be the worst of the health threats. By contributing to climate change, it contributes to risks ranging from heat waves to infectious diseases, from worsening allergies to food shortages. Children, the elderly and people with certain diseases are especially vulnerable.
Nor does the problem end there. What's left after coal combustion — coal ash — is a toxic material, contaminated not only with mercury but with other toxic metals such as arsenic, and with cancer-causing chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The TransAlta plant generates more than 2 million tons of coal ash each year. The massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee in 2009 demonstrated the potential for catastrophe at the end of the coal life cycle.
When we have the opportunity, we need to opt for other energy sources (at the same time reducing our need for energy through conservation, and providing for those whose jobs may be impacted by the transition). This is a feasible energy strategy; jurisdictions from Oregon to Colorado to Ontario are eliminating the use of coal in power plants.
Speaking as a physician dedicated to public health, phasing out coal is also smart health policy — and the right decision for Washington.Howard Frumkin is dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health. This article reflects his personal views, not the views of the university.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.