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  • David Weiskopf (NextGen Climate America)

Our Air: The Health and Equity Impacts of Burning Coal and Natural Gas in Pennsylvania and Ohio

NextGen Climate America, in partnership with PSE Healthy Energy, is proud to announce the release of “Our Air.” These reports examine the health and equity impacts of fossil fuel power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio – two of the heaviest carbon pollution emitters in the U.S.
You can read the full reports here, or at the bottom of this post.

Fossil fuel power accounted for two-thirds of our electricity generation last year, with roughly equal contributions from coal and natural gas sources. The burning of these fuels is a major contributor to climate change, which affects communities around the world. But, the immediate health effects of fossil fuel power plants are felt locally because they contribute to dangerous levels of air and water pollution in neighboring communities, in addition to contributing to climate change.

A new set of reports by NextGen Climate America and PSE Healthy Energy found that in 2015, particle pollution from power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio was responsible for more than 4400 deaths and more than $38 billion in health impacts. These states host coal and natural gas power plants that are disproportionately located in vulnerable and environmentally overburdened communities: more than 85% of fossil plants are located in areas with high concentrations of low-income and/or minority residents across the two states.

But the era of unlimited pollution from these plants is coming to an end. The Clean Power Plan sets national and state-level targets for carbon pollution reductions. As states consider their options for cleaning up their power sectors, they should maximize health and equity benefits while cutting carbon pollution by:

  • Prioritizing cutting pollution from the dirtiest plants,

  • Engaging with residents in the areas that are currently hardest-hit by power plant pollution, and

  • Investing in clean energy that will benefit communities that have historically borne the greatest burdens associated with living in a fossil-fuel economy.

NextGen Climate America and PSE Healthy Energy make these recommendations in the “Our Air” reports. These reports detail the health and equity impacts of power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

While particle pollution has negative effects over hundreds of miles, communities near fossil fuel power plants are at elevated risk air pollution and other types of pollution associated with burning fossil fuels. These risks include water contamination and exposure to toxic chemicals, such as dioxin and mercury. Neighborhoods near power plants are often already heavily burdened by other health, environmental, and economic factors, and living near the massive fossil fuel operations at power plants adds additional burdens on what are often a state’s most vulnerable residents. In Ohio, for example, nearly 90% of power plants are located in low-income areas.

Deaths attributable to PA and OH power plants, by County and Plant

Not all plants are created equal: Of the 2133 deaths attributable to Ohio’s power plants, more than 1900 could be traced back to the combined effect of its ten dirtiest plants, many of which are outdated coal plants still relying on 19th century technology. Avon Lake Power Plant, one of the dirtiest plants in the country, is located just outside Cleveland and has been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for at least three years.

Although coal plants are responsible for most of the health burdens, natural gas is not a safe alternative. In Pennsylvania, four of the state’s five most vulnerable power plant communities are near natural gas combined cycle plants rather than coal plants. While natural gas produces less carbon dioxide and other dangerous air pollutants per energy unit than coal, these plants carry their own environmental and health risks, and they operate in areas that are already suffering under disproportionate and unfair pollution burdens.

Increasing reliance on these natural gas plants to reduce coal emissions may result in lower health impacts overall, but it risks transferring at least some pollution burdens from rural, predominantly non-minority areas in Western Pennsylvania to urban communities of color in the Eastern part of the state. Only a direct shift to renewables will help meet Clean Power Plan targets while avoiding negative impacts on these urban communities and reducing the harm done by dirty power plants in rural areas.

As Ohio and Pennsylvania close their oldest, dirtiest plants, it is important that both states prioritizes energy efficiency and clean renewable sources, like wind and solar, rather than dirty fossil fuel plants.

Read the Reports:

This blog was originally posted on NextGen Climate America's website.

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