Debating Coal's Future

The residents of Meigs County, Ohio, live beneath the towering smokestacks of four coal-fired power plants. A fifth plant has been proposed, the latest salvo in a battle over the way the U.S. gets electricity.

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Coal Power: A Q&A

Since 2001, U.S. energy companies have proposed more than 150 new coal plants. But a loose network of environmental activists, aided by uncertain economic conditions, has forced plans for more than 100 of the plants to be abandoned. Dozens more are clogged up in the court systems.

One such coal fight is unfolding in Meigs County, Ohio, which is already surrounded by four coal-fired power plants. American Municipal Power has proposed building a new Meigs County coal plant, slated to begin construction late this year or in early 2010.

The following information provides background to explain why coal plants are at the center of a national debate over energy production and consumption.

What’s the connection between coal and electricity?

Nearly 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Coal-fired power plants burn coal to generate steam, which is used to turn the turbines of an electrical generator.

The U.S. has one of the largest coal reserves in the world and burns it at about 600 plants across the nation. Generating electricity from coal is common in the South and in the heartland, but less often used in regions such as the West Coast, where hydroelectricity and natural gas are bigger sources of power.

If coal is so important to electricity generation, why are some people concerned about building new coal-fired power plants?

Coal plants emit carbon dioxide, a major ingredient in climate change.

In recent years, NASA climate scientist James Hansen has advocated a moratorium on building new coal plants until technology is developed to prevent the carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere.

Hansen has warned that continuing to release carbon dioxide at current rates – even just for the next 10 years – will create “a different planet – one without sea ice in the Arctic; with worldwide, repeated coastal tragedies associated with storms and a continuously rising sea level.”

The proposed American Municipal Power plant in Meigs County would release an estimated 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to CARMA, a nonprofit group.

Why are there so many electricity-generating coal plants near Meigs County?

Coal has been a dominant industry for most of the region’s history. The county’s newest mine began producing coal last February.

An experimental site for carbon capture and sequestration, a technology to store carbon dioxide underground, is under construction in West Virginia near Meigs County's southern border. In addition, a coal-to-liquids facility and two other coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the region, although at least some of those plans appear to be on hold.

Meanwhile, Meigs County is one of the poorest counties in Ohio, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. Elisa Young, a Meigs County resident who has organized opposition to the new plant, argues that poverty reduces local opposition to the coal industry.

“When you have an economy that's entirely wrapped around coal, you can't speak out about it,” she says.

Some Meigs County residents are concerned about the health effects of coal plants. Why?

In 2007, the four existing coal plants near Meigs County released millions of pounds of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, chromium, manganese, mercury, sulfuric acid aerosols and selenium, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Each of these chemicals has been linked to human health problems, such as cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, impaired motor skills and neurological damage.

Kent Carson, a spokesperson for American Municipal Power, said the proposed plant will use new technology to control pollutants.

“This will be the cleanest facility of its type in the state,” he said.

Can it be proved that the coal plants are responsible for health problems in Meigs County?

It can be hard to prove that any one of the chemicals caused health problems of a particular individual.

“We’re exposed to a soup of chemicals,” said Kevin Crist, director of the Center for Air Quality at Ohio University. Crist said health problems can be influenced by interactions between chemicals, as well as by lifestyle factors.

In addition, low income – a common characteristic in Meigs County – is correlated with health problems. One reason is that poor people are more likely to smoke than their wealthier counterparts. More than 30 percent of adult residents of Southeast Ohio smoke, compared to only about 25 percent of residents of other Ohio counties.

Crist said tall smokestacks on the existing plants probably disperse most pollutants away from Meigs County. But he said it is impossible to know for sure what residents are being exposed to, because no agency monitors the county’s air.

So what do we know about air quality and health in Meigs County?

An analysis by USA Today estimated that the air quality at Southern Elementary School in Meigs County is worse than the air quality at 97 percent of the nation's schools. USA Today identified two of the coal plants near Meigs County as major contributors to pollution at the school.

In addition, men in Meigs County have the lowest life expectancy among men in any Ohio county, according to data compiled by Harvard University (women ranked 26th worst of 88 counties).

Meigs County also has the highest death rate of any Ohio county for lung and bronchus cancer, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Despite the suspected health effects, wouldn’t a new plant create much-needed jobs?

Blue-collar labor is especially important in Meigs County, where fewer than 5 percent of adult residents hold college degrees and more than 25 percent have no high school diploma, according to the Ohio Office of Policy, Research and Strategic Planning. In 2007, Meigs County's median income was $27,287, about half the national average.

Many Meigs County residents support the new plant for the jobs it may bring to the community. Construction worker Greg Sheets has testified in favor of the plant at public hearings.

“My family will benefit by me going up there and working,” he said. “If I reached in your pocket and took $200,000 out of your pocket, would you like it?” he said, referring to the income he estimated he could earn during the four years it would take to build the plant.

But no one can guarantee how many jobs will actually go to Meigs County residents or how much they will pay.

“We all know that not all the workers are going to come from Meigs County,” said Sheets, the construction worker. “They’ll be from all over the country.”

What’s next?

Before construction can begin on a new coal plant, an energy company must receive pollution permits from a state regulatory authority.

Carson, the American Municipal Power spokesman, said his utility has received all the permits it needs and that construction on the plant will start in late 2009 or early 2010.

Opponents of the plant have appealed the plant’s permits. The state of Ohio will allow construction to proceed during the appeals process.