Coal power plants and mercury

by Milan on February 16, 2010

in Air pollution, Power plants, Water pollution

One of the most worrisome aspects of coal-fired electricity is the quantity of mercury it releases into the air. According to the United States Geological Survey, human activities have doubled or tripled the amount of mercury in the atmosphere, and the burden is increasing by 1.5% per year. The most significant source of these emissions are coal-fired power plants. Mercury has serious impacts on human health, for children, adults, and unborn fetuses. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the four million babies born annually, 630,000 “could be at risk for developmental disorders because of mercury exposure in the mother’s womb.” Fetuses are both more vulnerable and more exposed than their mothers, with mercury concentrations in umbilical cord blood 1.7 times those in the blood of the mother.

Mercury also bioaccumulates in the food chain, becoming more concentrated as smaller plants and animals are consumed by larger ones. This is one of the reasons why there is so much concern about the mercury content in the carnivorous fish people eat, like tuna.

This illustrates one of the major co-benefits of phasing out coal. In addition to reducing the risk of catastrophic or runaway climate change, it would reduce the exposure of human beings to demonstrably harmful pollutants in coal emissions including mercury, lead, arsenic, particulate matter, and more. Physicians for Social Responsibility have said that coal is an “assault on human health.” In a study conducted by the US National Research Council, they found that coal-fired power plants cause $62 billion of health costs a year, in the United States alone. Plenty of US coal emissions find their way into other countries, as well as into the oceans shared by everyone. By the same token, coal being burned in India and China influences human health in all other parts of the world.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily February 16, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Plenty of US coal emissions find their way into other countries, as well as into the oceans shared by everyone. By the same token, coal being burned in India and China influences human health in all other parts of the world.

It is interesting how deeply we believe artificial, political boundaries to be ‘naturally’ protective. I think many of us share the misperception that an ecological disaster half way across the world is not problematic for our health because we occupy a different national atmosphere.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 1:16 pm

That is why I think libertarianism is dead as a defensible political philosophy. Or, at least, that it is much less liberating than it used to be.

I’ve elaborated a bit more on this on my original libertarianism post.

mek February 16, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Unfortunately, what we have here is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

More generally this is why all externalities in regards to pollution remain unresolved.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Who are the prisoners, in your analogy?

It seems more like a tragedy of the commons problem, in which selfish behaviour by some people hurts everyone.

As for pollution in general, there are success stories. What distinguishes climate change is the sheer number of people and industries involved, as well as the potentially grave consequences that could accompany seriously destabilizing the climate.

mek February 16, 2010 at 8:48 pm

1: we exploit our resources, everyone else does.
2: we do not exploit our resources, everyone else does.
3: we exploit our resources, nobody else does.
4: bury coal.

#2 is perceived to be the worst, as we lose revenue AND the world is destroyed. #1 is somewhat better, as the world is destroyed but we are slightly richer. #3 is the best self-interested scenario, because we become rich while others carry the financial burden of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. #4 is the egalitarian solution, but it requires us to trust others to be equally rational. Which is why I think it’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma. We choose to exploit because we will at least get #1 and will probably get #2 if we do not. #3 is a longshot and #4 is impossible because we cannot trust others to choose to not exploit.

I guess it’s just a matter of perspective, though. In my example, nations are individual rational actors, which is actually preposterous for obvious reasons. Anyway, this attitude explains provincial politics and especially the resistance of Alberta to green policies.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Thank you for the clarification. I have two responses:

First, Canada is more important than most other actors. For one, we have this huge oil sand resource. Unlike shale oil, it can probably be produced with a positive energy return on investment. We also have a huge share of the permafrost and methane clathrates that lie at the heart of the danger of runway climate change.

Second, I am not claiming that the course I advocate is the easiest one to follow. That said, I obviously think it is still worth making the case for and pushing for. I think most of those who are optimistic now are deluded, but I hold out hope that the world can get serious. Especially when major economic assessments peg the cost of making the transition to zero-carbon energy at just a couple percentage points of GDP per year.

. March 23, 2010 at 11:08 am

“In a rational world, preventing power plants from spewing hazardous chemicals proven to cause sickness and learning disabilities in children would be a major priority. But here in the U.S., rationality is far removed from energy.

A report released this week by the Environmental Integrity Project found that more than half of the country’s most hazardous power plants saw increases in mercury emissions between 2007 and 2008. Concluding that the electric industry was “not making a dent” in trying to reduce mercury, the report singled out some of the worst offenders, including American Electric Power’s Gavin plant in Ohio. The report said that Gavin was the 12th worst mercury polluter for emitting 937 pounds in 2008, double the previous year’s total.

When asked for comment, AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry told the Columbus Dispatch that mercury levels vary a great deal between batches. So AEP must be doing everything it can to avoid mercury-infested coal, right? Nope! “Our obligation is to find the lowest-cost fuel and, if it meets emission limits, that’s the coal we use,” McHenry said. “It just so happened that this coal had more.””

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