Thursday, December 8, 2011

PA Has 6 of 20 Biggest Toxic Polluters But Gas Dominates Environmental Fears

The Environmental Integrity Project is out with a must read report detailing pollution from power plants.  See the link below.  The data is compelling and leads me to these questions:

Why are so many in Pennsylvania and a lot of the environmental community focused largely on the environmental impacts of gas drilling, when Pennsylvania is home to 6 of the nation's 20 biggest power plant toxic polluters--all of them old, poorly controlled coal plants?  Which poses the most threat to our air and water? These top power plant toxic polluters emitting huge amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury? Or natural gas production that provides a fuel that emits zero mercury, lead?  These questions are not posed by the Environmental Integrity Project in its great new report on power plant pollution but should become burning inquiries, given the enormous data in the EIP report.

The good news in America's Top Power Plant Toxic Air Polluters is that nationally toxic metal emissions from electricity utilities are down from approximately 10% to 50% between 2007 and 2010.  See page 4 at  Electric power plants burning coal and oil, however, continue to emit much more toxic pollution than any other industrial source, approaching 50% of the nation's total.

The bad news is that Pennsylvania has 6 of the 20 biggest power plant toxic polluters (see page 6) in the nation and that still large amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, nickel, and selenium are dumped into America's air and water. Also distressingly, the amount of arsenic pollution emitted in Pennsylvania has actually risen since 2001, and Pennsylvania power plants emit more arsenic and lead than any other state's.  Or bluntly stated, we are number 1 in arsenic and lead power plant pollution.

The data in this report confirms four things:

1. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision overturning in 2009 the state mercury rule that the Rendell Administration successfully enacted over huge opposition was a public health disaster.

2. The EPA's proposed Air Toxic Rule is desperately needed in Pennsylvania to protect human health.

3. The top 20 power plant toxic polluters identified in this report must install modern pollution controls or switch to gas or other cleaner burning fuels.

4. The failure to use more gas to clean our air is a massive public policy, economic, and health mistake. 

It is extremely unfortunate that the gas industry and the environmental community do not make common cause on critical issues where their mutual interests are aligned, like the EPA's proposed Air Toxic Rule or using more gas and less coal and oil, while agreeing to disagree on other important issues.  The failure to cooperate hurts the gas industry, environmental protection, public health, and our economy. 

Sometimes fighting takes on its own momentum and "logic."


  1. John,

    Maybe gas dominates fear because of the governments failure to understand and address the problem?

    Breathing in polluted air over long periods of time is one thing; drinking water right out of your home faucet that is cloudy and tainted is another. The relative impacts of coal vs gas depend on your perspective... if my perspective is a homeowner with a leaky pit, tanks for NGLs, a compressor, and suspect water coming out of my faucet, all the blog posts in the world aren't going to make me feel like my fears are unreasonably focused on gas and not coal.

    I would suggest we need to get the politics and lobbying as far out of the picture as possible via campaign finance reform, and focus on re-balancing the true costs and benefits of our various available energy sources



  2. No doubt has impacts. They need to be minimized by strong regulation and excellent operations. But the EPA says 34,000 deaths each year result from pollution from old coal plants. The impacts dwarf anything caused by gas.

  3. I'm not disputing your points at all; I'm just suggesting that the way we value the cost/benefits of energy E&P as individuals(air pollution-related deaths, water related exposure to toxic chemicals, run-off, valley fill operations vs warm home, cheap bills, reliable electricity) really depends on the individual perspective, often regardless of science, externalized costs... if I'm Joe the electrician in rural Alabama, I might not care about the impacts as long as I get my energy at a reasonable costs.

    I think as scientists, we often (rightly) focus on data and the scientific method; the general public is fixated with "What affects me, now?" or "Why should I care?"

    "Not my water, not my asthma: give me cheap energy and jobs; you can keep your regulation."

    The government, industry, related scientists, and environmental groups need to do a much better job of having an open, transparent, and honest discussion in the limelight about all these issues for all sources of energy and explain to the people why they should care.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. Agreed. But in this case the media and environmental advocacy plays a role in what gets the most and least attention. I am traveling today and will be curious how much ink the EIP report got in Pennsylvania and the NYT.

  5. It's also that we view new threats differently from old threats. Those coal plants have, for all intents and purposes, always been there. Now we're talking about adding a new threat to a resident's kids, drinking water (potentially), and property values.

    My cousin in PA is pissed. I don't think she's being irrational; I think she's choosing her battles based on what's immediately in front of her. She's not reading about those coal plants in the news every day.

    Btw, your blog is very helpful. Thanks for taking the time.