Health Researcher: Clean Air Fight Has Political Dimension

Representatives from health and environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association gathered in Goodale Park in Columbus, Ohio, on June 30, 2011, to call on the EPA to create stricter rules against pollution from coal power plants.(Photo: Ally Marotti/WOSU)
Representatives from health and environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association gathered in Goodale Park in Columbus, Ohio, on June 30, 2011, to call on the EPA to create stricter rules against pollution from coal power plants.(Photo: Ally Marotti/WOSU)

There is a battle going on over clean air and coal-fired electricity. The Federal Government is poised to impose more air pollution controls on coal-fired power plants. Public health and environmental advocates want quick action on the new rules. But coal industry and utility executives said stricter rules will result in higher electricity rates and lost jobs.

Goodale Park on a sunny summer morning. Reynoldsburg mother Michele Timmons is among a group of activists carrying placards and collecting petition signatures in support of tougher EPA rules to reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants. Timmons takes pollution personally. She has a son with asthma.

“We have days he can’t go outside and play,” Timmons said. “We have times he’s missed ten days of school because he’s having asthma issues.”

Children’s Hospital in Columbus said asthma is the most frequent diagnosis for admission. Health surveys estimate between 10 and 13 percent of Ohio children suffer from asthma symptoms. That means Timmons’ young son is among an estimated 273,000 Ohio children with asthma. But Timmons’ appearance at the Goodale Park event is also part of a lobbying effort and advertising campaign by the American Lung Association and environmental advocacy groups. The groups claim that of all industrial sources of pollution, coal-fired power plants pose the greatest risk to human health. And they directly target Columbus-based American Electric Power.

The Lung Association said it has spent more than $275,000 in Ohio and a handful of other states promoting what it calls its Healthy Air Campaign. It also has a lobbying arm to urge Congress to keep strict clean air rules. Last month in a half-page newspaper ad in the Columbus Dispatch, the Association juxtaposed a picture of a child with an inhaler next to a scene of smokestacks spewing flames and black smoke.

Ohio State University public health researcher, Tim Buckley, confirms the types of emissions from power plants, including particles, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, that can trigger asthma symptoms in children. But he said researchers are still trying to determine why childhood asthma in Ohio is increasing while air quality is improving.

“Air quality in general in this country has actually improved,” Buckley said. “So there’s a bit of disconnect, and a bit of mystery in terms of understanding, you know, how is it that air quality can be improving and at the same time we’re seeing increases in asthma prevalence rates.”

The coal industry and power plant executives point to the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent to reduce coal plant emissions. They characterize the proposed pollution rules as “unrealistic.” AEP said if the proposed rules take effect as planned in 3 1/2 years, it would have to shut down five coal-fired generating plants and reduce operations at a half-dozen others. They predict the loss of 600 jobs, including about 150 in Ohio. AEP Ohio’s vice president of power generation, Mark Piefer, said the company is already required to use effective anti-air pollution technology.

“We do have as part of these EPA rules there is a part of these rules that says we’re committed to the maximum achievable control technology,” Peifer said. “So if it’s out there, over time we’d have to migrate towards that.”

AEP and some partner utilities spent $500 million in 2009 installing anti-pollution equipment on one of its generators in Conesville in Coshocton County.

The Ohio Coal Association is also lobbying members of Congress. Ohio Coal Association President Mike Carey said the stricter EPA rules would also mean lost jobs in Appalachian coal fields that feed fuel to the region’s electric power plants in eastern Ohio.

“You cannot say that destroying an industry and forcing people to pay more for electricity, when many, many people in this country and this state clearly understand that they don’t have the level of incomes that they had just a couple of years ago,” Carey said. “I don’t think in any way you can say that that’s going to make them healthier.”

Buckley allows that there is a political dimension to the current dispute over clean air rules. But he said the science that links air pollution and incidents of asthma is compelling.

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