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Thousands of deaths linked to soot, group says

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh region's air is clearer than it was during its industrial, "Smoky City" heyday, but it could be a lot healthier if old, coal-burning power plants reduced their emissions of soot.

That soot -- actually microscopic airborne particles produced by coal burned to produce electricity -- cuts short the lives of 585 Pittsburghers each year, according to a study to be released today by Clear the Air, a national consortium of environmental groups campaigning against pollution produced by power plants.

The report, titled "Death, Disease and Dirty Power," said that more than 30,000 people in the United States are dying months or years earlier because of power plant pollution, and that about two-thirds of the deaths could be avoided if the older facilities cut emissions by 75 percent.

The national report, produced by Abt Associates, a firm used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the health benefits of many regulatory programs, estimated that Pennsylvania ranks first in the number of soot-related deaths by state, with 2,250 a year.

"That's not something that's going to attract industry or families to the state," said John Hanger, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, which released the study in Pennsylvania. "Unfortunately, we have a number of communities that are heavily impacted by these emissions and they are doing damage to the economy and not just to people's lungs."

Pittsburgh ranks sixth among metropolitan areas in soot-related deaths. In addition to the premature deaths, the report also attributed 395 hospitalizations and 9,210 asthma attacks to soot from utilities.

According to the study, which used mortality and health risk data to arrive at its estimates, reducing emissions from the old utilities by 75 percent would result in 371 fewer deaths in Pittsburgh, 241 fewer hospitalizations and 5,620 fewer asthma attacks annually.

"Every year we fail to clean up dirty power plants, thousands of people will get sick and die," said Tiffany Stevens, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Pennsylvania. "The solution is clear and doable. All we need is the will to save lives."

Dan McIntire, general manager of Orion Power MidWest, said utilities have been reducing pollution emissions and will continue to do more. Most already have reduced ozone forming pollutants by 55 percent from 1990 levels.

"But what about the health benefits brought by the availability of cheap electric power for things like water pumps and refrigeration? What about the consequences of not having those things?" McIntire asked.

To reduce power plant pollution and improve public health, the report recommends that the EPA dump a provision in the Clean Air Act that allows older, dirty power plants to operate without modern pollution controls and emit as much as 10 times more pollutants than new, technologically modern plants.

Jim Locher, director of environmental health and safety for Reliant Energy -- which operates seven power plants in Pennsylvania, most built in the 1950s -- said the plants targeted by the report are all complying with national air quality standards.

He said it's important to balance environmental concerns with the demands for electric power. In the United States, 57 percent of electricity is produced by burning coal.

"We take our responsibility seriously and are concerned about public health," Locher said, "but we don't have the data that shows this substantial a link."

Last year, power plants directly emitted about 300,000 tons of fine carbon soot particles, down from 1.8 million tons in 1970. But far more fine particles are formed from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by power plants.

Recent research shows that the smallest soot particles -- less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or one-hundredth the width of a human hair -- actually do the most damage to human health because they are breathed more deeply into the lungs, thus evading the lung's natural filters. Health problems include asthma attacks, cardiac problems and upper and lower respiratory problems.

The EPA's 1997 fine soot regulations, now the subject of a Supreme Court appeal by various industries, sought to tighten the limits on the amount of very fine soot particles that industries could emit into the air.

To reduce those emissions, the Clear the Air report recommends broader application of existing pollution control technologies, use of cleaner fossil fuels, and replacement of the existing older power plants with more sustainable means of producing electricity, including greater use of wind, solar and hydro power.

Hanger, a former member of the state Public Utility Commission, said the price increase for an average residential customer choosing to purchase electricity from sustainable or renewable energy sources is less than 30 cents a day.

"The solution is to vote with your pocketbook. As consumers, we can buy cleaner energy and, if the demand increases, that will push power providers into expanding those sources," Hanger said. "To the extent that we continue to buy coal-produced power, we are part of the problem."

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