Clean air worth the costs?

In response to last week’s decision by the Supreme Court to delay new limits on power plant pollution for more consideration of costs, a leading coal industry strategist, Mike Duncan of Inez, applauded and said, “Elitist ideas usually carry lofty price tags.”

The coal industry may consider clean air unaffordable. But everyone breathes, so wanting clean air for everyone is the opposite of “elitist.”

Consider the 7 million American children who suffer from asthma are disproportionately poor. Black children, not usually thought of as elites, suffer from asthma at about twice the rate of white children.

Or how about Kentuckians who would like to feed the fish they pull from the state’s waterways to their families without fear? Is that an elitist impulse?

Mercury, one of the toxins that have been spewed by the ton from power plants, has fallen into the food chain. Every lake and stream in Kentucky is under a mercury advisory for children and pregnant women.

Contrary to the impression created by Monday’s 5-4 ruling, the Environmental Protection Agency did calculate the costs of imposing new limits on how much mercury, arsenic and cadmium power plants could release into the air.

The EPA just didn’t make the calculation early enough in the rule-making process to suit all of the justices.

The analysis found that every $1 spent to reduce toxic power plant emissions would produce $3 to $9 in health benefits.

Those benefits include avoiding 4,200 to 11,000 premature deaths, 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,700 heart attacks, 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits and 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

One reason the benefits are so significant: technology for removing toxins also removes fine particles that lodge in lungs and the bloodstream and cause heart and lung disease.

More than 1 in 10 Kentuckians suffer from asthma. We’re No. 1 in lung cancer, have the nation’s highest death rate from lower respiratory disease and rank sixth nationally in fatal heart disease. Kentucky has much to gain from cleaner air.

Nonetheless, the setback for cleaner air and asthmatic children was hailed as a victory by coal industry loyalists from both parties, including Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic candidate for governor Jack Conway. Attorney General Conway made Kentucky a party to the lawsuit challenging the power plant rule.

Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity based in Washington, said the EPA “will finally have to listen” to concerns about cost.

Fortunately, for all of us breathers, the ruling’s practical effects appear limited.

The new rule has been in the works since 1990, set in motion by Congress and the first Bush administration. In 2008, the federal courts threw out a rule put forth by the second Bush administration as too weak.

Utilities, which must plan long range, are well on their way to compliance in Kentucky.

Monday, LG&E and KU cut the ribbon on a new natural gas plant in Louisville that will allow decommissioning three older, much dirtier coal-fired plants, including Tyrone in Woodford County.

KU touts its four-year-old Trimble County unit as one of the cleanest coal-fired plants in the country.

KU customers will be charged an average $9 more a month to help pay for the cleaner generation but will also be reaping the health rewards.

East Kentucky Power Cooperative has spent $2.7 million upgrading pollution controls at Spurlock in Maysville and is in the process of installing $15 million in new controls at its 50-year-old Cooper plant near Burnside.

Rather than try to upgrade coal-burning units, the oldest of which is 60 years-plus, on the Kentucky River in Clark County, EKPC is decommissioning the Dale power plant and, thankfully, removing the coal ash stored in a riverside waste pond at the site.

Everyone can breathe a deep sigh of relief about that because wanting clean water is no more elitist than wanting clean air.

Herald-Leader, Lexington

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