For every coal miner’s job that the incoming administration preserves over its term in office, one or more Americans will die because of the air pollution coming from coal-fired power plants. That is not a price worth paying.
Rather than trying to preserve coal mining jobs in the face of the increasing competitive advantages of natural gas, wind, and solar energy and at this appalling health cost, it would make far more sense to let coal-fired power continue its gradual decline and to direct a substantial investment in infrastructure and economic redevelopment to those specific areas still dependent on coal.
We know the health cost because in a remarkable and important research project,[i] Paulina Jaramillo and Nicholas Muller mapped the location of every coal-fired power plant in the U.S and matched each one with its regulated emissions of particulates, sulfates, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals, as reported to the EPA. They then used standard atmospheric dispersion models to distribute those pollutants to the geographical locations where the emissions degrade air quality. Using census demographic data, they then estimated the populations exposed to these pollutants at all locations. Finally, with epidemiological data on dose-response relationships, they estimated the numbers of people in each census district and state who would die of respiratory disease, lung cancer or heart disease because of their exposure to air pollution.
The toll is more than 18,000 people every year, or more than 70,000 over the four-year term of the incoming administration. The shocking magnitude of this health impact has been corroborated by a new study by the Health Effects Institute finding that air pollution from all energy, industrial and transportation sources caused more than 80,000 deaths per year in 2015.[ii]
The fatalities that these studies have found to be attributable to coal burning stand apart from the contribution of coal-fired power plants to global warming, which is already killing Americans every year from more frequent and intense heat waves, floods, tornadoes, and diseases. Also omitted is the health impact of drinking water quality degradation by mercury and other heavy metals deposited in our water bodies from power plant exhausts and leakage from coal ash and sludge pits.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,[iii] fewer than half of the 69,460 people working in the coal mining industry actually mine coal. The rest are administrators, surveyors, accountants, security guards, truck drivers and other occupations that are transferable to other sectors of the economy – to renewable energy industries, for example. Any jobs lost in this polluting industry would be outweighed by the reductions in deaths, disability, and chronic illness from a transition to clean energy, as well as the productivity gains from a healthier labor force less impaired by pollution and extreme weather.
It is almost half a century since the enactment of the Clean Air Act, a law which required the attainment of air quality standards that would protect the health of even the most vulnerable of the American people, with an adequate margin of safety. How can it be that even now we still bear this deadly pollution burden? How can politicians consider rolling back environmental protections and weakening the Environmental Protection Agency in the face of this harm?
There are only 9 states out of 50 where the number of coal mining jobs to be saved exceeds the number of deaths from pollution caused by coal-fired power plants. In most of the states where Donald Trump won the vote, including Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the mortality toll will be far greater than the number of coal mining jobs.
In addition, people working in and around the mines have significantly higher mortality rates from heart disease,[iv] bronchitis, emphysema, silicosis,[v] black lung disease,[vi] and other occupational hazards. It would be far more helpful to coal miners to provide them with retraining and employment programs and their families with increased income and health support.
[i] P. Jaramillo and N.Z. Muller. Air Pollution Emissions and Damages from Energy Production in the U.S., 2002-2011, Energy Policy 90: 202 – 211.
[ii] Health Effects Institute, State of Global Air 2017, Boston, MA.
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