A new report released by the Iowa chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (available from the PSR site) concludes that bad air quality caused by coal combustion costs Iowans over $71 million annually in health damages, mostly from premature deaths, as compared to places with only “average” air quality. The pollutants released even by Clean Air Act-regulated coal plants have measurable, costly effects on human health. They cause respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic bronchitis, and also aggravate cardiac conditions. Children’s immature lungs and elders’ often-delicate hearts are the most vulnerable to coal plant pollution. Other costs are connected to infant mortality, respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, acute bronchitis, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma emergency room visits, minor restricted activity days and lost work days. Add this to the fact that coal combustion for electric power is the source of some 40% of U.S. industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and you have a powerful reason to look for alternatives to coal boilers.
Nation-wide, coal supplies less than 50% of U.S. electricity, a proportion that has dropped in recent years as other, cleaner forms of energy have taken hold. But while the country is weaning itself from coal, Iowa hasn’t changed its habits much. In 1990, 85.6% of Iowa’s electrical generation by utilities came from coal. In 2008, the most recent year the Energy Information Administration reports, Iowa utilities’ electrical generation was 87.6% coal. Iowa’s total electrical generation has also increased 54% since 1990, roughly at the same pace as consumption.
All that renewable energy Iowa’s been building? It’s in the mix too, but we’re using so much more electricity that it gets lost in the yawning appetite for more coal. Anybody who’s paying attention knows that Iowa’s population hasn’t grown 54% in the last two decades. Iowa’s population growth rate from 1990 to 2000 was 5.4%.
EIA also tells us that 9/10 of the coal burned in Iowa is shipped in from Wyoming, and that the cost of coal for Iowa utilities has gone up 13% since 1990.
The PSR report recommends that we:
- Support funding for more comprehensive tracking and monitoring of adverse health events caused by air pollution;
- Tighten energy efficiency standards to control the runaway increase in energy consumption;
- Enact a moratorium on new coal plants in Iowa & replace the oldest burners with cleaner, preferably Iowa-sourced, forms of energy;
- Tighten standards for small particulate matter, the cause of many of the most severe health impacts;
- Act decisively to clean up and contain coal ash waste at the state & federal level; and
- Eliminate subsidies and tax and financial incentives for burning coal.