Saturday, August 28, 2010

Protecting Public Health with a Clean Power Supply

September 12th is the start of a 5 day meeting in Montreal, Canada for the World Energy Congress.  It's expected that 3,500 global leader in the energy field will meet to discuss trends and growth on forms of renewable energy.  Currently, the US if far behind the game with only 4% of our energy coming from "alternative sources" as a percentage of total power capacity.  Countries such as the UK (8.4%), Brazil (9.8%), and Spain (30.1%!) trounce the US in their ability to adopt and encourage forms of renewable energy throughout their countries.  

There is hope, however!  The Sierra Club is making big strides across the nation and rallying many universities student groups into becoming a changing force called "Coal Crushers."  Cornell University's student group helped bring about a $80 million project to switch from coal fired energy to using bio-fuels, natural gas, and recycled steam energy for their campus' electricity.

A similar push to transition off of coal to renewable and less polluting sources of energy is mounting here in the state of Washington.  Interestingly, while Washington generates only a measly 6.3% of it's potential 56,000 gigawatt-hours from wind, it ranks at the top of the Forbes list! With this growing movement there will be big changes ahead for how we power our lives.

You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

The Pacific Northwest likes to think of itself as clean, green, and progressive with its hard stance on recycling, composting, and encouraging bicycling to work.  Being from Pennsylvania, which one of the commonwealth's nicknames is the “the coal state,” I was a little skeptical about the blanket idea of "evergreen" all across Washington state.  Here in Washington, it's true that you can freely bathed in the beauty of the mountain vistas, but Washington still has strong roots to an old and becoming outdated industry of coal fired plants for electricity.
The Sierra Club calls its movement to eliminate coal fired plants here in Washington, the Beyond Coal champaign.   But what is it exactly about coal that makes it so dirty?

Washington’s only coal plant, located in Centralia is owned by a Canadian corporation named Trans Alta, and is Washington state’s largest point source of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury pollutants.

The global warming pollution emitted annually by TransAlta is equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.8 million cars. Shutting down the TransAlta plant, "would be like taking every car and truck off the road in King County, plus every car and truck in Yakima County, Lincoln County, Columbia County, and Garfield County."

Climate change affects the fundamental requirements for health, clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food. Transitioning Washington off coal would significantly reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

The family of nitrogen oxide compounds are known to decrease lung functionality and worsen respiratory diseases in children, such as in children with asthma. The NOx compounds released from TransAlta also contribute to the haze that destroys the clear and beautiful views of Mount Rainer, the Olympics and the North Cascades.

TransAlta emits more than 350 pounds of mercury a year. That's enough mercury to contaminate 3.1 million acres of lake, the equivalent of 145 Lake Washingtons!  Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Mercury is a devastating neurotoxicant that may result in depression, developmental delays, and mental retardation.

If these facts weren’t mobilizing enough, the toxicity of TransAlta continues. Annually, TransAlta releases 2.3 million tons of toxics coal ash. This post combustion waste contains a significant array of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, chromium, and lead. Arsenic and chromium are known human carcinogens. Children exposed to lead at a young age are more likely to suffer from learning disabilities and behavioral problems.  Lead exposure has also been linked to kidney damage and miscarriage.

The good news is Washington often leads the nation on the environment changes and provides a model for the rest of the nation to follow suit. The state's outdated use of coal should be no exception. Washington can become the first coal free state - showing the rest of the nation that that it is possible to accept and prosper with cleaner and healthier sources of energy.

Now is the time to take action!  Governor Chris Gregoire is currently negotiating the future of the TransAlta coal plant. October 1 will be a statewide day of action, urging Governor Gregoire to take a stand against dirty and dangerous coal burning techniques and to spreading awareness of the hazards of coal here in Washington.

Fired up? Want to take action? Contact Cara Dolan, the public health organizer for the Coal-Free Washington campaign, and she’ll tell you how you can get involved and help build a coal-free future.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Alex

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