Charlotte Observer — OPINION
Sat, Jan. 19, 2008
New coal plant could endanger our health
LAWRENCE RAYMOND AND STEPHEN R. KEENER
Lawrence Raymond, M.D., ScM, FCCP, is director of occupational/environmental medicine at Carolinas Medical Center. Stephen R. Keener, M.D., MPH, is medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department. They are members of the Medical Advisory Team of Carolinas Clean Air Coalition.
Duke Energy’s proposed expansion of its Cliffside coal plant 50 miles west of Charlotte would exacerbate several serious problems that already threaten the health of Charlotte-area residents.
First, the draft air permit for the new coal plant would allow it to emit 296 pounds of mercury every year. Duke reported that the four very small old plants it plans to shut down emitted only approximately 28 pounds of mercury in 2005. Thus, the new coal plant would be permitted to emit over 10 times as much mercury as the four units being retired emitted.
Mercury in the air settles into our water, where microorganisms change it into highly toxic methyl mercury, which then builds up — bioaccumulates — in fish, shellfish, animals and the people who eat them. It takes only a tiny amount of mercury to contaminate an entire lake.
Medical studies show that methyl mercury exposure, primarily through ingestion of contaminated fish, can cause severe central nervous system damage, as well as milder intellectual, motor and psycho-social impairments. The human fetus is particularly vulnerable and may develop irreversible lesions even if the pregnant mother shows no signs of toxicity. Children exposed prenatally to relatively low levels of methyl mercury perform less well in several cognitive tests.
Hundreds of miles of North Carolina rivers, lakes and coastlines are already listed as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act because their fish contain so much mercury. On Oct. 29, 2007, USA Today published a map showing Charlotte and the area around Cliffside as a mercury hotspot, with mercury levels over 10 times more than pre-industrial levels. Because mercury is so dangerous to unborn children, Duke should be required to use the best available mercury controls.
Perilous particulate matter
Particulate matter is another very dangerous pollutant produced by coal plants. Inhaling particulate matter can result in a wide range of adverse health effects, including asthma attacks, lung tissue damage, strokes, heart attacks and premature death. A report by the Clean Air Task Force in 2000 estimated that particulate matter from coal plants is responsible for nearly 24,000 deaths each year.The N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has chosen not to require Duke to reveal how much PM 2.5 — the tiniest, deadliest particulate matter — the proposed plant would emit. The Charlotte region’s air is close to exceeding federal limits on particulate matter already. Adding more particle pollution would make our increasingly dirty air even more dangerous to breathe.
Coal plants are also a major source of nitrous oxide — a key component of ozone or smog. Our region’s air quality already violates the EPA ozone standard, which is undergoing review because it doesn’t go far enough to protect human health. Even under the current standard, we experienced 25 days of unhealthy air last summer.
Recently an official with the N.C. Division of Air Quality recommended a review of the plant’s emissions of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide to ensure they won’t significantly worsen the region’s air quality. As our planet continues to warm, higher summertime temperatures will add to our ozone problems.
Fuel for climate change
Finally, global climate change is accelerating much faster than the world’s scientific community had previously predicted. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already causing more than 150,000 deaths annually across the globe; most of the dead are children in poorer countries.
The American public will also face increasing health risks from more frequent and severe heat waves, increasingly intense floods, droughts and hurricanes, and rising incidences of pest and waterborne diseases.
By emitting over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually for the next 50 years, Cliffside would fuel climate change, with its devastating impacts for North Carolina and the world.
We realize the need for energy for our region, but it should not be produced at the expense of our human health and the spoiling of our natural resources and recreation areas.