Study Finds Coal Closures Saved Thousands Of Lives Wednesday, Jan 8 2020 

A new study finds the closure of coal-fired power plants and transition to natural gas generation across the United States over a decade saved an estimated 26,610 lives due to a reduction in air pollution, with about a fifth of those avoided deaths in the Ohio Valley.

The coal-rich Ohio Valley states received outsized health benefits from the shift from coal to gas. The analysis found about 5,300 deaths were avoided in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

The study, published Monday in the Journal Nature Sustainability, examined the impact of the closure of 334 coal-fired units between 2005 and 2016. During that same time period, 612 new natural-gas-fired units were brought online.

The analysis found that when coal plants closed, air pollution including particulate matter, ozone and other toxic substances decreased in nearby communities, reducing deaths from respiratory diseases, stroke and heart disease.

“We see that on average, across the country, the mortality rate, the number of people dying in a given population size goes down by about one percent when a unit shuts down,” said Jennifer Burney, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and author of the study.

For decades, coal produced and burned in the Ohio Valley played an outsized role for much of the United States. The decline of coal has profoundly changed many communities as employment in the mining and coal generation sectors declined, but Burney said her research shows coal’s decline also has tangible benefits in lives saved.

“It’s really interesting that this is also where you see these really high beneficial impacts,” she said. “People have not died that might have if those plants have been kept on.”

The study also found the closure of coal plants benefited the country’s agricultural sector. Less air pollution allowed more sunlight to reach the earth’s surface, which the analysis extrapolates resulted in saving an estimated 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat grown near closed coal-fired generators.

In addition, Burney’s analysis estimated air pollution from coal plants also masked some of the warming in the atmosphere.

“It’s like taking off your hat in the sun. You feel the full heat that’s there and that’s what’s happening right now as the air is getting cleaner,” she said. “We’re now seeing the full extent of warming that’s already present, but had been kind of hidden from us by pollution.”

While the public health benefits of decommissioning coal plants are significant, Burney cautioned that does not mean natural gas generators come without similar risks.

“[Natural gas] produces a little bit less carbon dioxide than coal, but it’s still spewing a bunch of carbon dioxide in the air,” she said. “And from an air pollution perspective, just like with coal, when you burn natural gas, you get carbon dioxide but you also get a set of other pollutants that are produced —  it’s just a different mix from coal.”

She said more study is needed to determine what kinds of impacts turning on a natural gas plant may have on both communities and crop yields.

EPA Proposes Changes To Federal Coal Ash, Wastewater Rules Tuesday, Nov 5 2019 

Federal environmental regulators have released proposed changes to two rules related to the disposal of coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced its third round of changes to its 2015 rule regulating coal ash. Coal ash is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains toxic compounds like arsenic, lead, and radium. Dozens of the waste sites dot the Ohio Valley, often along rivers.

The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration extended the closure deadline through October 2020. Now, it’s proposing to move the deadline two months sooner, in part to address legal challenges surrounding the rule.

The rule also lays out a series of provisions that would allow coal ash sites to remain open longer, including if the nearby coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close. Sites can also request a closure extension if the plant needs time to figure out how to dispose of other waste being placed into coal ash sites.

“At first glance they’re like, ‘oh, it used to be October. Now it’s August — that’s better,’” said Larissa Liebmann, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. “But then they’ve created all these alternatives, which give them this extra time based on various issues.”

The toxic residue from burning coal is a major concern in the Ohio Valley. An analysis by the ReSource and partner station WFPL found nearly every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.

That mirrors data collected on a national level. An analysis of data collected under the 2015 coal ash rule, released this year by environmental groups, found more than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

Effluent Rule

The EPA is also proposing changes to another 2015 rule that regulates water discharged from power plants, also known as effluent.

The Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. The rule required affected plants to install technology to reduce discharge.

Similar to the coal ash regulation, the wastewater rule was also embroiled in legal challenges.

In its proposed updates, the EPA is relaxing some pollution limits and extending the compliance deadline by two years. In exchange, the agency is promoting its voluntary incentives program.

In a press release, EPA said the new effluent rule would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost.

Environmental groups disagree and argue the rule change will instead expose millions of people to toxic pollution.

“Not only does [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s proposal eliminate some of the strongest pollution limits required by the 2015 rule, it carves out new polluter loopholes for the industry,” Jennifer Peters, with Clean Water Action, said in a statement. “Wheeler’s proposal also claims that power plants will voluntarily adopt new, stricter standards, despite the fact that a similar program existed in the 2015 rule, and virtually no coal plants adopted it.”

Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised EPA’s efforts to rewrite the effluent rule.