When coal is burned in power plants, it releases particulates and gases that are toxic to humans and the environment. Millions of pounds of toxic metals and acid gases are released every year. The coal industry has made improvements in the area of emissions through the use of better equipment, improved protocols, and better state standards over the last ten years; yet, it’s still far from being considered acceptable.
Mercury is a type of metal that is a strong neurotoxin and is very harmful to developing fetuses and young children. Plant emissions from coal plants deposit mercury in rivers and streams, where it concentrates in aquatic organisms and fish. On a positive note, there was a decrease in mercury emissions from coal power plants, from 88,650 pounds in 2001 to 53,140 pounds in 2011. However, that’s a collective statistic meaning some coal plants emission of mercury actually increased over that same time period: Maryland was able to reduce their emissions of mercury by 80% while Texas increased their emissions of mercury. This is important to note because mercury concentrates in rivers, streams, and lakes closest to power plants and the water can travel long distances.
Power plants have until February 2015 to comply with the new Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) rule. MATS will enforce power plants to clean up their emissions and should cut current mercury emissions by 75%. But, the rule is being challenged by some of the major coal plants attempting to avoid the costs needed to meet the new standards.
Other Non-Mercury Metals
Other types of metals emitted from coal plants include:arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead, and nickel. These metals have been found to be carcinogenic and are linked to liver and kidney damage, and nervous system disorders. Electric power plants are the largest source for arsenic emissions, accounting for 57% of the national total. The health and environmental risks associated with coal plant emissions depends on the proximity of vulnerable populations downwind and the amount of chemicals being released.
Acid gases are another major type of toxic chemicals released by coal power plants. Hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, and hydrogen cyanide are three main byproducts found in the combustion of coal. Acid gases have been shown to cause lung damage in the forms of asthma, bronchitis, and chronic respiratory disease. The MATS rule would decrease the emissions of these pollutants by 88% by 2016. The EPA predicts that the reductions in direct emissions of particulate matter will save an estimated 4,000 to 11,000 lives each year that are now cut short by the heart and lung diseases that result from power plant fine particle pollution.
I Want to Know
Under the Federal Right to Know Law, power plants must submit annual reports to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on their emissions. The EPA generates a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) that is used to identify the largest polluters and categorizes the types of pollutants being released. The power plants are only required to report emissions when the amount of the specific toxin, e.g. lead, in the coal that is burned throughout the year adds up to more than 10,000 pounds per year even though the toxic metals are dangerous when inhaled or ingested at extremely low concentrations (parts per billion). Mercury has a much lower threshold for reporting than the 10,000 pounds per year. The toxic metals are not destroyed during the combustion of coal; they are emitted from the plant, are discharged in wastewater, or piled up in landfills and impoundments.
A Kentucky Coal Plant made the Top 10 Polluter List for the United States in 2011. The Tennessee Valley Authority Paradise Fossil Plant located in Muhlenberg, County, Kentucky made the Toxic Ten List for the Largest Sources of Power Plant Carcinogenic Metals Emissions. The Coal-fired power plant was actually number three on the Top 10 list. The Paradise Fossil Plant’s emissions included:
- Arsenic at 1,505 pounds
- Chromium at 1,409 pounds
- Cobalt at 440 pounds
- Lead at 452 pounds
- Nickel at 2,250 pounds
- Grand Total of Carcinogenic Metal Emissions was 6,634 pounds
It’s important to note here that the above numbers are in pounds. As mentioned earlier, toxic metals are dangerous when inhaled or ingested at extremely low concentrations (parts per billion). One part per billion is equivalent to 1 second in 32 years, 1 penny in 10 million dollars, or 1 blade of grass on a football field.
Site promoting work for Muhlenberg County:
A site with a report from Jan 2013 stating that TVA plant in Drakesboro made the Top 10 Polluter lIst:
The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory Program: