Report Details Power Plant Dangers

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Public Health Feature – June 2013

Tex Med. 2013;109(6):45-49.

By Crystal Zuzek 
Associate Editor  

In an unpredictable economy, policymakers look to alternative energy sources to fuel the future. And as scientific research exposes the link between air pollution and disease, physicians seek ways to restrict the amount of toxins patients breathe.

Robert Haley, MD, director of the Division of Epidemiology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, lives in Northeast Texas, a region with three of the dirtiest and oldest coal-fired power plants in the state. A report released earlier this year, Addressing Pollution from Legacy Coal Power Plants in Texas, examines retrofitting the Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello coal-fired facilities with modern emission controls or replacing them with cleaner alternative energy sources. The Texas Medical Association, the Dallas County Medical Society (DCMS), and Texas Business for Clean Air contributed money to help fund the report.

Prepared by Daniel Cohan, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, the report targets 1970s-era coal-fired plants because they are "the leading emitters of air pollutants and greenhouse gases in Texas." They 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.

That's a major health worry because a 2004 University of Southern California study shows particulate matter air pollution leads to reduced lung capacity in teenagers who grow up in areas with heavily polluted air. After tracking children living in Los Angeles communities with varying levels of pollution, researchers concluded the lung capacity of about 8 percent of 18-year-olds was less than 80 percent of normal. The incidence dropped to about 1.5 percent for those living in areas with the least air pollution.

"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," Dr. Haley said

And, The Toxic Ten: Top Power Plant Emissions of Mercury, Toxic Metals, and Acid Gases in 2011, a report released this year by the Environmental Integrity Project, ranks Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello among the top five emitters of mercury in the nation. 

A study by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio shows a statistically significant relationship between pounds of industrially released mercury and increased autism rates. Researchers looked at school district data from the Texas Education Agency and industrial mercury release data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released into the environment, on average, the rate of special education services increased 43 percent, while the autism rate increased 2.6 percent. Community autism prevalence decreased by 1 percent to 2 percent every 10 miles from the pollution source.

The negative health impact of coal-fired power plants inspired Dr. Haley and other Texas physicians to work for change. Dr. Haley hopes Addressing Pollution will be the basis of sound legislative policies and regulations that promote clean air and energy sufficiency while stimulating economic growth from clean energy industries.

 Action Required

In 2006, Texas utility companies proposed constructing 17 new coal-burning power plants and one petroleum-coke power plant in four years. TXU Energy planned to build 11 of the new plants. But in 2007, faced with opposition from environmental groups, TXU agreed to reduce the number of planned coal-fired power plants in Texas to three.

That same year, Energy Future Holdings acquired TXU for $45 billion, the biggest leveraged buyout in history. However, the company lost $1.9 billion in 2011 and $3.36 billion last year, and company officials fear it could default on its debt and go bankrupt.

"Our substantial leverage could adversely affect our ability to fund our operations, limit our ability to react to changes in the economy or our industry (including changes to environmental regulations), limit our ability to raise additional capital, and adversely impact our ability to meet obligations under our various debt agreements," the company said in its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Energy Future Holdings also warns it "may not be able to repay or refinance our debt as or before it becomes due, or obtain additional financing. ..."

Dr. Haley worries that if that happens and another company buys Energy Future Holdings, the new owners will continue doing business as usual. That scenario concerns him because, he says, the plants will persist in spewing massive quantities of pollution into the air for the next decade or longer. In fact, the three older power plants are exempt from Clean Air Act requirements that industrial facilities use modern pollution controls.

"Compared to the amount of pollution these three plants emit, they produce a relatively small amount of electric power. In other words, the damage to people's health and the environment these plants are doing far outweighs their value as energy sources," Dr. Haley said.

Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello are "tremendously harmful to the environment," says 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.

Using the Addressing Pollution report as a foundation for sound environmental policy, Dr. Haley hopes TMA physicians will advocate retrofitting legacy coal-fired power plants with updated emissions control technology to reduce pollution or replacing them with cleaner sources of renewable energy. On behalf of DCMS, Dr. Haley planned to introduce two resolutions regarding EPA-compliant pollution controls on legacy coal-fired power plants to the TMA House of Delegates at TexMed 2013 last month.

The first resolution asks TMA to support legislation or Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) rules to require installation of EPA-compliant selective catalytic reduction (SCR) 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 second resolution asks TMA to "support legislative and Public Utility Commission incentives to encourage the building of more energy-productive and less polluting alternatives to replace" Big Brown, Martin Lake, and Monticello.

Dr. Haley pointed out that Addressing Pollution says requiring coal-fired power plants to use SCR technology could eliminate 90 percent of pollution emissions, or 18,000 tons of annual air pollution, in North Texas.

"It's important that physicians and business leaders work to ensure that the legislature or TCEQ acts on this. We don't want to perpetuate the operation of these legacy coal-fired power plants," he said. 

Options for Change

Addressing Pollution acknowledges the competitive advantages of legacy power plants and the obstacles to investment in new power generation and demand-reduction.

The report lists four options: 

  1. Eliminate incentives for high-emitting power options. The report says environmental regulations for legacy power plants are far more lenient than those for newer energy plants. Such a competitive advantage contributed to the older plants operating past their expected lifetime. Addressing Pollution says it's time to cease giving special treatment to high-emitting power plants.
  2. Foster a viable market for low-emitting new power generation. The uncertain marketplace for electricity prohibits some potential new renewable electricity providers from obtaining financing. The report suggests promoting new power "by providing modest incentives for options such as solar, geothermal, and coastal wind, which can reduce overall system costs by alleviating price spikes at times of peak demand."
  3. Enhance the Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). RPS sets a statewide power generation target from renewable sources. The report credits it with "catapulting the state to its lead role in wind power generation" and calls for enhancing the RPS, which "now lags behind the more ambitious targets set by many other states."
  4. Enhance the Texas Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. This standard, according to the report, helps Texas customers substantially reduce their power demand. The report cites research by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy – a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that advocates efficient energy policies – that indicates "further substantial improvements in energy efficiency and demand response could be achieved in Texas at far lower costs than new generation options. Together, these options could foster the ability of electricity providers to offset any loss of generating capacity from the legacy coal-fired power plants, while enhancing air quality and minimizing costs to ratepayers."

 Jeffrey Levin, MD, past chair of the TMA Council on Science and Public Health, says Texas must examine alternatives to coal-fired energy.

"I think there's sufficient evidence to say that coal – particularly using older technologies – isn't an environmentally sound energy source. It's important for us to look for other sources because in our energy-dependent society we have to avoid permanently polluting or destroying our environment," he said.

The Physician's Role

Dr. Levin, chair of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Medicine at UT Health Northeast (formerly UT Tyler), says physicians' role in environmental health has evolved over the past 20 years.

"We've seen a significant focus on environmental health issues over time. A good example is smoking regulation. At first, physicians recognized the connection between smoking and lung disease. Eventually, they realized tobacco use affects more people than just the individual smoker. Smoking regulations represent an enormous paradigm shift within the medical community, which acknowledges the environmental health concerns posed by tobacco."

Dr. Haley hopes Addressing Pollution and advocacy efforts for clean air policy will encourage physicians to get involved.

"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.

Dr. Stafford urges physicians to become educated on the impact the environment has on health.

"In the past, physicians have generally not been involved in environmental issues. As more physicians become aware of environmental health threats, they're getting involved in trying to minimize the amount of pollution being produced," he said.

Crystal Zuzek can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1385, or (512) 370-1385; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email.


Corpus Power Plant Halted

Wesley Stafford, MD, leads by example. The Corpus Christi allergy and asthma specialist helped thwart development of a $3 billion coke-fuel electricity project planned for Corpus Christi.

After facing tremendous opposition to the project, Chase Power, the parent company of the Las Brisas Energy Center, suspended it. The company blamed market conditions and Environmental Protection Agency regulatory policies.

In May 2008, Las Brisas Energy Center, LLC, asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for a permit to build a petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi that would power 650,000 homes. Opponents asserted the plant would emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, endangering the public's health. TMA, the Nueces County Medical Society (NCMS), and environmental organizations encouraged Las Brisas to invest in cleaner, more efficient energy alternatives.

In December 2008, Jeffrey Levin, MD, then-chair of the TMA Council on Public Health, sent a letter on behalf of TMA to NCMS Executive Director Paulette Shaw. Dr. Levin outlined TMA's clean air policy, which focuses on supporting the growth of renewable energy sources, reducing consumption, and promoting the use of the latest technologies and allocation of state resources to reduce air pollution.

"TMA policy supports the efforts of NCMS to encourage the use of cleaner technology available to minimize air pollution. On behalf of the Council on Public Health, I wish you much success in this effort," Dr. Levin wrote.

Dr. Stafford says the backing of TMA, NCMS, and environmental groups helped build awareness of the Las Brisas project and the detrimental health impact it could have on the area's residents. Corpus Christi community physicians opposed the new plant in testimony to the Corpus Christi City Council and TCEQ.

"TMA has many policies intended to help reduce the potential impact of the environment on the health of Texas citizens. We need to continue to support Texas physicians when they identify environmental factors that endanger patients," he said. 

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May 13, 2016

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