EPA’s overhaul of federal coal plants’ regulations comes with an unexpected environmental and human health cost.
Effects of EPA Coal Rules

Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an overhaul of federal pollution restrictions on coal-burning power plants. This change in regulation is meant to create new jobs, empower the coal industry, and eliminate unnecessary red tape. It is also expected to save up to $31 million dollars a year for the energy industry, according to WMNF. However, a recent article in The New York Times explains this change in regulation will also bring about “as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030” and will cause “up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems by 2030. This new plan would also lead to 48,000 new cases of “exacerbated asthma.”

According to The New York Times article, a similar analysis by the EPA showed that when the current coal regulations were finalized in 2015, they were estimated to reduce 1,500-3,600 premature deaths by 2030. The EPA’s new laws would reverse those health benefits and usher in more premature deaths and health problems than before.

The main reason for the new policy’s negative human health effects is a microscopic airborne particulate known as PM 2.5, which The New York Times describes as “dangerous because of [its] link to heart and lung disease as well as [its] ability to trigger chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis. Most PM 2.5 is created as a “result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants” such as coal, as explained by the EPA.

Human health will not only be affected by PM 2.5’s release into the atmosphere. WMNF interviewed Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice, who explained that coal ash would also be detrimental to human health. “Coal ash is the solid waste that results from burning coal…Coal ash is a problem because burning coal creates a tremendous amount of ash and that ash, if it gets into contact with water, will release…dangerous chemicals like arsenic, and mercury, and chromium, boron, radium, etc,” she said. Coal ash is created in large volumes during the process of burning coal, which means that finding secure places to store coal ash is difficult to do. Evans explains that the cheapest and most common way of storing coal ash is in a wet, unlined pit, but this leaves the chemicals at risk of leaking into surface water.

Evans provides two catastrophic examples where these chemicals were not properly contained.  The first example she listed was in “Tennessee, where over a billion gallons of sludge covered over 300 acres in a disaster” in 2013. CNN reported on that story and stated that there was enough sludge to “fill nearly 800 Olympic-size swimming pools.” Evans also lists a North Carolina incident in 2014, where “70 miles of river from North Carolina to Virginia” were fouled with coal ash and the chemicals it released.  The Guardian reported that “a massive pile of coal ash about 75 ft long and as much as 5ft deep had been detected;” and federal and public health officials were both concerned for the environmental and human health effects of the “toxic coal ash.”

These potential environmental and human health dangers have historically been considered when analyzing EPA’s regulations, but the EPA’s method of costs and benefits analysis to new regulations is expected to change. The New York Times explains that the agency is “considering a separate rule that would restrict the use of any study for which the raw, underlying data cannot be made public for review.” This change would eliminate many crucial studies’ data and findings from being used in EPA’s assessment of its own proposals, because “participants in long-term health studies typically agree to take part only if their personal health information won’t be made public.” By reducing the number of studies that can be used for its proposal analysis, the EPA will have a harder time assessing the true health cost of future regulations and decisions.

As the EPA’s new federal policy is implemented and as future policies are put into place, it is important to keep in mind these regulations’ environmental and health costs and how future generations will be affected by them.