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Erin Ann Thomas

A Toxicologist’s Testimony Concerning a Coal-Fired Power Plant

The Weekly Snippet: Selection from Coal in Our Veins

Next to testify was Lara Greene, a toxicologist and chemist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was losing her voice and waved away offers of water, claiming it wouldn’t help. She began by stating that Mirant had given her and her colleagues a grant to study the problem. As a scientist employed by a power plant, she chose her words carefully in her testimony: “Anybody who lives in Marina Towers knows the stacks are far below the height they should be. When Marina Towers was built the idea of stack height didn’t exist yet. Since the 1980s engineers have known that unless a stack is at a certain height, it is capable of creating a downwash situation for nearby residents in high towers. I would urge you all haste to increase the stack height, virtually in the stack merger, and I would also urge an actual stack height increase.”

This statement contained an admission that perhaps that stack merger would not solve all the downwash problems. A year prior to the hearing, Mirant had applied for and been granted permission by the Federal Aviation Administration to raise the stacks by fifty feet. Due to the expense of this project, Mirant decided to propose a stack merger instead.

Greene continued with another point of contention Alexandria had with Mirant, SO2 emissions: “It is the case that the primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards for sulfur dioxide are not sufficient or protective under a very special set of circumstances which may or may not exist here. Although people without asthma—and many with asthma—can tolerate a reasonably high level of sulfur dioxide, there’s a subset of asthmatics who are very sensitive to SO2. Now, this only happens upon hyperventilation, such as when somebody is exercising, but if you happen to be a SO2-sensitive asthmatic who is exercising in the presence of SO2, within a few minutes, bronchial constriction takes place.”

When Greene mentioned this subset of asthmatics, I was reminded of my personal stake in the lawsuit. I live seven miles from the plant by car (and four as the crow flies) and belong to the region evaluated in Levy’s study. Asthma is a problem that I have dealt with since I was fourteen. Long-legged and tomboyish, I kept up with the fastest boys in grade and middle school. Ever since, running has been a challenge, and exercise is something I have to work into slowly. Maintaining my aerobic health is essential, a challenge when allergies increase my propensity for illness and aggravate my already serious case of asthma. Even in my early twenties, when I worked for the Forest Service and was strong enough to carry a ten foot fence post on my shoulder up a hill, I had to take breaks in long hikes to keep from passing out.

One of the pioneers in studying the health impact of power-plant emissions, C. Arden Pope, worked as an economics professor at Brigham Young University when my Grandpa Thomas was still one of its vice presidents. Between 1985 and 1988, the Geneva Steel plant—located near where I grew up in Orem, Utah—temporarily closed over a labor dispute. Pope took the opportunity to evaluate the claims of many mothers in the area that the plant was making their children sick. He studied hospital admissions during this period and found that admissions for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma were between 50 and 86 percent higher for children while the plant was operating, and during the worst weather conditions, they were up to 47 percent higher for adults. It has been documented since that children who live near power plants develop smaller and weaker lungs.

I don’t know if I belong to the group of SO2-sensitive asthmatics or if my asthma is the result of my proximity to the Geneva Steel plant in my childhood, but I do know what it feels like to hyperventilate for hours and wake up the next day aching from the byproducts of anaerobic respiration in my muscles. I know what it’s like to be carried home from a basketball game because I can’t walk or to lose my vision temporarily because there is not enough oxygen in my blood to operate my brain. It’s a big deal for me, one that my doctor advised me could be deadly.

Next, Greene addressed Mirant’s plan to use trona to control particulate matter, which was first proposed in 2005 after the plant temporarily ceased operations. The plant’s original experiments with trona were kept secret from the public, which created suspicion among residents. Using trona was a new technique, and the plant had considered submitting their approach for patent. Earlier at the open house, Misty Allen had explained that trona was “just like baking soda” and “perfectly harmless.” This argument probably holds up if you were proposing to scrub your toilet with trona, but the repeated inhalation of baking soda could be another matter.

Greene admitted, “Trona is not the best way to control SO2, but it is a feasible way to control SO2, and it seems like it will be feasible here. Now trona has a downside; a miner or miller who is working with trona can experience irritation … In Alexandria, the amount of trona that would escape is such that at most the impact of half of a microgram.”

A report released by the EPA in 1977 under the Carter administration indicated that scrubbers were the best way to eliminate SO2 from power plant emissions. EPA Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum claimed: “The only process with high sulfur-dioxide removal efficiency widely available now is scrubbers.” As of 2004, only two-thirds of America’s 420 plants had scrubbers installed, even though they have been shown to reduce the SO2 emissions by 95 percent.

The last part of Greene’s testimony was the most passionately delivered, despite her raspy voice, indicating that there is an aspect of a scientist that no company can buy: “Of all the pollutants that we have to deal with in the East Coast, the one that matters the most is ozone. I am horrified that cars do not have mandatory mileage controls. I am disgusted that ozone has not become better controlled in our society, especially on the East Coast, and I’m frankly mystified that nobody seems to be focusing on ozone. Ozone is a problem for all of us whether we have asthma or not, whether we’re young or old. So when people have burning eyes and irritation from the short-term effect of ozone, and probably other oxidizing pollutants, I would urge you also to think about the oxidizing pollutants, not just focus on reducing SO2.”

Greene didn’t connect this speech to the plant directly, but implicit in her testimony was the fact that larger pollution issues were at stake.

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One Response to A Toxicologist’s Testimony Concerning a Coal-Fired Power Plant

  1. Don Stuart says:

    Erin, I love your book. I bought it in Chaleston, WV while doing consulting work @ the coal mines. I am currently doing work @ Marfork, Elk Run & Goals. They are now owned by Alpha Natural Resources. Thanks for the fair & balanced approached to coal mining. You are a great writer. Keep up the good work. P. S. I love Price, UT. I have done work there recently. I have made a wonderful living for 25 years in the mining industry! :)

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