Texas Physicians: Dirty Power Plants Harm Patients’ Health

June 14, 2013  

Motivated by what they believe are harmful power plants in Northeast Texas, physicians of the Texas Medical Association (TMA) will ask state leaders to take action to make the plants safer. 

TMA’s House of Delegates governing body recently passed a resolution calling for TMA to support laws or state agency rules requiring the old, polluting power plants to be retrofitted with pollution controls within 5 years. Doctors also seek such modifications on any plants that are sold. They also want state energy leaders to encourage construction of cleaner, more energy-producing plants.  

A Rice University report released earlier this year targets 1970s-era coal-fired plants because they are “the leading emitters of air pollutants and greenhouse gases in Texas.”   

The report examines retrofitting the Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello coal-fired facilities with modern emission controls or replacing them with cleaner alternative energy sources. TMA, the Dallas County Medical Society, and Texas Business for Clean Air contributed money to help fund the report. 

The report, cited in June’s TMA Texas Medicine magazine, says these plants heavily contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and particulate matter, a mixture of substances including carbon-based particles, dust, and acid aerosols formed in the atmosphere by volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. In other words, they pollute the air. And the three east Texas plants are shown to be among the top five emitters of mercury in the nation. 

“The concern is that people who live in areas of high air pollution may have reduced lung capacity for life and will be more susceptible to other diseases such as chronic cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases,” said Robert Haley, MD, director of the Division of Epidemiology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.  

The three older Northeast Texas power plants are exempt from Clean Air Act requirements that industrial facilities use modern pollution controls. Yet they also are relatively unproductive. “Compared to the amount of pollution these three plants emit, they produce a relatively small amount of electric power,” Dr. Haley said. “In other words, the damage to people's health and the environment these plants are doing far outweighs their value as energy sources.” 

The Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello plants are “tremendously harmful to the environment,” according to Wesley Stafford, MD, a Corpus Christi allergy and asthma specialist and member of the TMA Council on Science and Public Health. 

“On one hand, these plants generate energy inexpensively, but on the other hand, they emit more pollution than any other plants in the state. It's a classic debate of cheap energy versus harm to the environment,” he said. 

The new TMA policy calls for legislation — or Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules — to require installation of Environmental Protection Agency — compliant selective catalytic reduction technology for pollution controls “on coal-fired power plants that change ownership in Texas and on all coal-fired power plants in East Texas within five years.” The resolution also supports “legislative and Public Utility Commission incentives to encourage the building of more energy-productive and less polluting alternatives to replace” the Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello plants. 

Dr. Haley and his physician colleagues hope these measures will protect their patients’ health. “Physicians should think about all the patients they see with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations and all the children they treat who have frequent asthma exacerbations. These dirty power plants contribute to those and other health problems,” he said.  

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 47,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 112 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.  

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Contact: Pam Udall
phone: (512) 370-1382
cell: (512) 413-6807
 

Brent Annear
phone: (512) 370-1381
cell: (512) 656-7320
 

 

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