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"Clean Coal's" Dirty Secret

Dr. Alan Lockwood discusses coal's dirty characteristics, the recent Republican-led attacks on the U.S. EPA, and why cleaning up air pollutants could result in trillions of dollars of health-related benefits in the United States.

Recorded : September 2012

In this Down to Earth episode, Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch speaks with Dr. Alan Lockwood, a physician and author of the new book, The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health.

Though coal is a major source of energy in both the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, relatively few people are aware that coal-related pollutants are among the top 10 causes of death and disease in the United States. In this interview, Dr. Lockwood discusses coal's dirty characteristics, the recent Republican-led attacks on the U.S. EPA, and why cleaning up air pollutants could result in trillions of dollars of health-related benefits in the U.S.

Jessica Knoblauch: Dr. Alan Lockwood, welcome to Down to Earth.

Dr. Alan Lockwood: Thank you. I'm pleased to be here.

Jessica: For more than three decades you've been an active member of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), which, among other things, has spoken out against the use of coal because of its health and environmental impacts. Why did you first become involved in the organization?

Dr. Lockwood: I initially became involved with PSR at a time when we were a single issue organization oriented around preventing nuclear war. But as the organization matured we became interested in other problems that we saw as the greatest threats to human survival.

Jessica: I see. And so your organization is primarily made up of physicians. How has elevating the voice of physicians helped shape the debate on coal?

Dr. Lockwood: As physicians we see in every day practice the ravages that the coal-generated pollutants wreak on Americans, and indeed, the same is true worldwide. The four leading causes of death in the United States, heart disease, cancer, diseases of the respiratory system, such as asthma, and stroke, all have coal-related pollutants as important risk-factors. In fact, if we were able to segregate out deaths and disease due to exposure to coal-related pollutants and identify that as a single cause of death, it would easily be in the top 10 causes of death among Americans. And in other countries, like China, where they burn even more coal than we do in the United States, it would be higher.

Jessica: And so you've mentioned that these studies of the relationship between burning coal and the health effects of hazardous air pollutants date back to the late 1800s. Yet, it seems like much of the public is still largely unaware of coal's major health effects. What do you attribute this lack of knowledge to?

Dr. Lockwood: The lack of knowledge is in part responsible for the title of the book, The Silent Epidemic: Coal and The Hidden Threat to Health. We're not used to thinking of coal as being a threat to health. You might make an analogy to smoking cigarettes. There was a time when we, as physicians, used to participate in advertising campaigns talking the virtues of smoking cigarettes. And then it became evident that smoking cigarettes was very, very bad for you and now it's difficult to find a physician who smokes. So, it's an evolving opinion and awareness among the public and among physicians about the importance of air pollutants, particularly those that are derived from coal as a cause of morbidity and mortality.

If we were able to segregate out deaths and disease due to exposure to coal-related pollutants and identify that as a single cause of death, it would easily be in the top 10 causes of death among Americans.

Jessica: And so you not only reach out to the public, you actually work with educating physicians on the issue as well?

Dr. Lockwood: Absolutely. One of the important things that we do and that I've done this fall as a part of the public relations efforts surrounding the publication of the book is meeting with medical students, public health students and other officials to educate them about the importance of these coal-derived pollutants as a public health issue.

Jessica: Do you find that a bit of a challenge, looking at these environmental aspects of health? Because I feel like sometimes physicians tend to ignore some of those things, because they can't really quantify them as much.

Dr. Lockwood: Actually, it is quite possible to quantify them and that's what the role of modern epidemiology has been so critical in doing. It's quite possible and now a matter of routine to look at large-scale epidemiological studies, sometimes involving tens of thousands of participants, or in some instances all of the Medicare enrollees, and look at the correlations between pollutant levels that are measured by the Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations and hospital admissions for diseases like stroke, myocardial infarct[ion], congestive heart failure, asthma attacks and the major diseases in the top causes of death and disability among Americans.

There was a time when we, as physicians, used to participate in advertising campaigns talking [about] the virtues of smoking cigarettes. And then it became evident that smoking cigarettes was very, very bad for you and now it’s difficult to find a physician who smokes.

So, it’s an evolving opinion and awareness among the public and among physicians about the importance of air pollutants, particularly those that are derived from coal as a cause of morbidity and mortality.

Jessica: One of the things that you do in your book is you examine the coal life cycle from the very chemical make-up of coal until the waste issue of burning it and transporting it. One of the things that I found surprising in your book is that not all coal is the same. Can you explain a little bit about why that is?

Dr. Lockwood: Coal is actually either a sedimentary rock or a metamorphic rock. So, coals are formed from plant life from plants that were growing in ancient times that died and collected in large masses and then subjected to heat and pressure over millions of year and it transformed these plant life deposits into sedimentary rocks that we now refer to as "coal."

And depending upon what the conditions were at the site where these deposits occurred, the composition of the resulting coals will vary. So that some coals, for example, have lots of sulfur in them, and those are typically coals that were covered by sea water during some portion of their formation, and some coals have much less sulfur in them, and typically those were the result of being covered by fresh water supplies

So there are all kinds of elements and compounds that are present in coal: arsenic, mercury, selenium, barium—a host of toxic heavy metals that are incorporated into coal. And when the coal is burned, many of these toxicants escape out through the smokestack into the environment where they have adverse effects on health.

Jessica: And the fact that coal is not always the same, does that have any impact on the ability to filter out these pollutants?

Close Video

Video:
In the Shadow of the Stacks

Coal-fired power plants are the nation's worst toxic air polluters. The pollution from these plants have serious impacts on health—including causing premature death.

Hear from Earthjustice Attorney Jim Pew, who has worked for more than a decade to clean up coal plants, and two Pennsylvanians—Marti Blake and Martin Garrigan—who know firsthand what it means to live in the shadow of a smokestack and the specter of a plume.

Related: Life Under the Stacks, a Photo Slideshow

Dr. Lockwood: In some instances, yes. For example, the very high sulfur coals that are typical of some of the coal beds in China would require much more specific waste treatment approaches to remove the sulfur from the flue gases and coals that are lower in sulfur.

Jessica: So you mentioned a lot of the things that can be found in coal. It's obviously a very inherently dirty energy source. Are you of the opinion that coal can be cleaned up? I know I've heard a lot about clean coal, not just in terms of carbon capture and sequestration, but also just making the burning process itself cleaner. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Lockwood: "Clean coal" is a phrase that was developed or propagated several decades ago when it became more economical to wash coal at the site where it was mined to remove impurities like the dirt and rock that are retrieved along with the coal as it's mined. Typically, about 30 percent of the stuff that's extracted from a mine is not coal, and in order to make it more economical to ship and, ultimately, to burn, the coal mining industry began to wash the coal using physical separation techniques to separate out this rock and dirt from the coal and then to ship it.

Black coal is processed and cleaned in this West Virginia processing plant. Containment ponds like this one are filled with toxic chemicals. (OVEC)

So, the first clean coal was literally the stuff that had been washed, much like you wash yourself to get rid of dirt from your body. But more recently, that phrase "clean coal" has changed to include the carbon capture and storage technology that's being touted by some as a solution to the terrible problem of global warming that we're beginning to face (or not beginning to face, as the case may be) because burning coal is the single most important source of carbon dioxide that's being discharged into the atmosphere and the most important contributor to impending problems of global warming.

Jessica: So, can it be clean then? It sounds like it can.

Dr. Lockwood: Theoretically, yes. As an individual who earned his living as a neuroscientist, I would support research into this area. But the initial look at what clean coal technology in terms of carbon capture and storage technologies are all about, I think it's really quite discouraging. The estimates are that something like 40 percent of all the energy that would be produced by a carbon capture and storage facility would be needed to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide on a permanent basis.

So, it would make the efficiency of these power plants substantially lower and much more expensive electricity, as the result. Plus, we would have to develop a huge infrastructure of pipelines to transport the carbon dioxide from the power plant sites to some site where it would be stored for geological times. And we have no idea where or how to do that.

[Carbon capture and storage technology] … sounds attractive, it sounds slick and inviting on the surface, but when you start looking at the realities of what really would need to be done, it would be an enormous undertaking that would be necessary by all of the countries on the earth in order to make this a technology that really was worthwhile.

So there are enormous problems to be confronted with carbon capture and storage technology. It sounds attractive, it sounds slick and inviting on the surface, but when you start looking at the realities of what really would need to be done, it would be an enormous undertaking that would be necessary by all of the countries on the earth in order to make this a technology that really was worthwhile. I don't believe that this is something that's going to come to pass easily or in the foreseeable future.

Jessica: One of the other efforts to make coal cleaner involves installing scrubbers on power plants. But as a New York Times article pointed out a couple of years ago actually, the unintended effect of cleaning up our air through this measure has been the creation of thousands of gallons of wastewater, known as coal ash.

Dr. Lockwood: Indeed, I have participated in congressional briefings that were sponsored by Earthjustice on this very issue, and Earthjustice deserves a great deal of credit for leading the educational efforts designed to influence pending regulations on the part of the EPA and the terms of how to dispose of coal ash in an environmentally sensible fashion.

We burn about a billion tons of coal in the United States every year and this generates about 100 million tons of coal ash. And this ash, as you point out, ironically, as pollution control devices designed to keep toxicants out of the atmosphere become more efficient and better able to remove them from the air, these toxicants, like arsenic and mercury and lead and barium and vanadium and a whole host of others, wind up in higher concentrations in the ash, and disposing of this in a way that is protective of human health is a major challenge that is yet to have been confronted.

Earthjustice deserves a great deal of credit for leading the educational efforts designed to influence pending regulations on the part of the EPA and the terms of how to dispose of coal ash in an environmentally sensible fashion.

Jessica: It sounds like the fact that it's a closed loop system actually works to its detriment. You clean it up in the air, but it's still going to end up in the water.

Dr. Lockwood: It's the Law of Conservation of Mass, isn't it? If you have a molecule or atom of mercury in one place, it's going to stay there. That atom of mercury is never going to go away. It's just a question of where it's going to be.

Jessica: Well and you mentioned serving as a panelist in congressional briefings. What made you decide to take your message to Washington?

Dr. Lockwood: It's important to support the Environmental Protection Agency as it seeks to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. Right now the EPA is the only federal agency that's capable of promulgating regulations that apply across the country to important waste streams like coal ash and the emissions from coal-fired power plants. And as people who are listening to this podcast I'm sure are aware, the EPA is under intense assault in Congress now. There are those who would do away with the agency completely, or at a bare minimum, strip it of its powers to regulate the coal industry and the coal-fired power plants and remove a host of other regulations that are designed to protect human health and the environment.

Coal-derived air pollutants cause thousands of heart attacks and asthma attacks each year. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

And this is being done with a false sense of the economy, in my judgment. One of the tasks that the EPA is charged with performing by the Clean Air Act is to make periodic reports to Congress about the costs and benefits of the regulations that it promulgates. And the most recent of these reports estimates by the year 2020 the annual cost of compliance with the regulations will be on the order of $65 billion, but the benefits will be on the order of $2 trillion. That's a huge benefit-cost ratio that most people don't understand, and if they did, I think perhaps the rush to condemn EPA and what are referred to as "job-killing regulations" could be brought in check and seen for the beneficial steps that these regulations really represent.

Jessica: Coal has really been elevated as a political issue over the past year and especially ramping up with the presidential campaign. Most recently, the GOP and Mitt Romney accused President Obama of enacting a so-called "war on coal." In what ways does coal becoming a political issue affect the public discussion?

Dr. Lockwood: It's hard to look in any one direction and not see a great deal more misinformation than there really ought to be in a political campaign. I look at the attacks on EPA as a war on health. We've had wars on poverty, wars on cancer. The so-called "war on coal", I think, really is a misnomer. The Environmental Protection Agency is working mightily and against increasing odds to really make important public health decisions that are protective of human health and benefit everyone.

I look at the attacks on EPA as a war on health … The Environmental Protection Agency is working mightily and against increasing odds to really make important public health decisions that are protective of human health and benefit everyone.

Jessica: Speaking of political issues, in a recent ad Mitt Romney was quoted as saying, "We have 250 years of coal. Why wouldn't we use it?" How does PSR counter this sort of "use it or lose it" mentality?

Dr. Lockwood: I think that in order to understand what the real costs of using this resource are, one needs to understand the damage to human health and the environment that's the consequence of burning coal. I think if Americans realized that coal-related pollutants were among the top ten causes of death and disease in the United States, they would be much less susceptible to these arguments that paint the attempts to protect health as a war on coal.

Jessica: So, last year you participated in Earthjustice's "Right to Breathe" campaign, which brought together a wide range of citizens from all 50 states to tell members of Congress and the EPA and the Obama administration to speak out for strong protections against harmful pollutants, such as those that come from coal. What made you decide to get involved with the "Right to Breathe" campaign?

Dr. Lockwood: Well, I see it as a part of my professional responsibility as a physician. During the course of our training to become doctors and in our experience as practitioners or researchers we gain knowledge that is potentially usable in a broader format in the public health domain. And I consider it as a part of my professional responsibility as a physician to participate in these kinds of educational activities that are designed to educate my fellow physicians, concerned citizens, legislators and the general public about the realities of the true cost of burning coal in terms of damage to health.

Dr. Lockwood addresses the Little Blue Regional Action Group. The Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment is the largest unlined coal ash pond in the country.

Jessica: And how do you see the partnership between organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility and legal organizations like Earthjustice helping out in an effort to reduce coal consumption?

Dr. Lockwood: Well, the attorneys are Earthjustice are skilled in doing things that have to do with the law and lawsuits, and not necessarily knowledge about medicine and public health. And we, as physicians do, and at Physicians for Social Responsibility we're really very proud of our collaboration with legal organizations like Earthjustice. I'm really pleased to be a part of this and to work with Earthjustice and it's a good collaboration and one that needs to continue, sadly. [laughing]

Jessica: Definitely. Well, Dr. Lockwood, it's really been great talking with you. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Lockwood: You're very welcome, Jess.

Jessica: Dr. Alan Lockwood is the author of The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health. If you'd like to learn more about cleaning up coal pollution, check out Earthjustice's coal campaign at earthjustice.org/coal.

Learn more about coal:

The Story of Coal: From cradle to grave, coal is one of the most polluting energy sources on earth. Our addiction to the energy coal provides has fundamentally altered the earth's atmosphere and physical landscape for the worse. Yet despite coal's harmful effects on human health and the environment, we continue to mine it, burn it for electricity, and dispose of its abundant wastes in unsafe ways. Learn about the life stages of coal.

Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives: Coal-fired power plants generate about 140 million tons of combustion wastes every year. These wastes contain some of the earth's most deadly pollutants, including toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm in humans. Dumped into unlined ponds or mines, the toxins readily leach into drinking water supplies. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the country and is essentially unregulated. Learn more about coal ash through videos, photo essays, maps, fact sheets, and more.

Left: A cloud of highly toxic coal ash is seen blowing like a sandstorm straight at the homes on the Moapa River Reservation in Nevada. (Moapa Band of Paiutes)

50 States United for Healthy Air: Clean air should be a fundamental right. Every year, many young and old get sick because of air pollution. Thousands die. But our bodies don't have to be the dumping ground for dirty industries. The technology to dramatically reduce harmful air pollution is available today, and major polluters should be required to use it. Not a decade from now. Now. We will raise our voices to demand immediate action, because everyone has the right to breathe. Clean Air Ambassadors from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2011 to defend our right to breathe.

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