This article was written by Patrick Lyons and published in the Great Lake Echo:
LANSING– Coal-fired power plants in seven Michigan counties have been linked to hundreds of premature deaths in the state.
Michigan coal-fired plants have been linked to deaths, but utilities worry that new EPA regulations will hurt customers’ wallets.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has adopted tougher regulations intended to lessen the health risks of coal-fired power plants.
A report from Environmental Health and Engineering Inc. in Needham, Mass., commissioned by the Michigan Environmental Council, linked 180 cases of premature death to emissions from the nine oldest coal-fired plants in the state.
Emissions from those plants, built between 1949 and 1968, are also responsible for 660 premature deaths in surrounding states, according to the report.
The report shows that in addition to causing deaths, plants are damaging cardiovascular and respiratory health in Michigan and surrounding states, resulting in health care costs of $1.5 billion and $5.4 billion respectively.
“These nine plants, we think, can be mothballed,” said James Clift, policy director for the council, a coalition of local and statewide environmental groups.
Clift said coal has been the cheapest fuel option because the associated health costs had not been considered.
Once the health costs of coal are taken into account, renewable energy will be the best, Clift said.
“We would like to see it replaced with a combination of investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy and you might convert some of these facilities to natural gas for at least a limited time,” Clift said.
The council’s report focuses on the health effects of particulate matter, which is mixture of small particles and liquids containing acids, organic chemicals, metals and soil or dust particles. These particles are inhaled by and affect the lungs and heart.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is a new nationwide EPA regulation that will require coal-fired electricity producers to eliminate a significant amount of emissions, including particulate matter, by 2015.
“The standard will make sure 90 percent of the mercury in coal burned at power plants isn’t released to the air and will reduce emissions of particulate matter from power plants by 19 percent per year,” EPA said.
The EPA estimates that this new regulation will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths a year and 4,700 heart attacks nationwide.
John Austerberry, senior specialist for media relations at DTE Energy in Michigan, said that the utility will meet the requirements but would like more time to plan a strategy for doing so.
“We think that the EPA’s timetable for reaching these new limits is a bit overaggressive,” Austerberry said. “That is going to have some unintended consequences that will almost certainly include higher rate increases than would be required otherwise.”
The cost of implementing new technology to meet the standard will be passed onto the consumer, and may require DTE to shut down whole plants or single generator units, he said.
The EPA said it expects this new regulation to create 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 utility jobs nationwide.
But that will not be the case if utilities close plants instead of renovating, Austerberry said.
He said the nationwide standard will strain the producing capacity of companies producing the clean technology required to bring coal-fired plants up to the standard.
And the supply of workers trained to construct the new technologies will be stressed as well. The increased demand will lead to higher prices, making the transition more expensive for the utility companies, he said.
Already DTE has spent 10 years and $2 billion adding clean technology to its Monroe plant, which is not one of the nine in the report. Austerberry said that proves the three-year timetable to meet the requirement is too short.
In a report, the EPA said that it expects energy rates to increase nationwide by an average of 3.1 percent in 2015, when utilities are required to meet the new standard.
Vinson Hellwig, chief of the air quality division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said the standard is likely to face legal challenges, either from the utility companies or from a state’s attorney general.
The standards will go into effect this April.