LIVING GREEN for Aug. 16, 2012

It’s Toxic 13 for Palmetto State air quality

To some, the number 13 is lucky and to others, the number is unlucky. But to South Carolinians, the number 13 is toxic. A study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) named South Carolina as No. 13 out of the Top 20 toxic states for exposing residents to toxic air pollution. Residents are at a higher risk of numerous health problems just by breathing. Also, included within the Top 20 are North Carolina at No. 8, Kentucky at No. 1 and Florida at No. 6. The good news is that South Carolina dropped rank from No. 11 in 2009, so the higher the ranking number, the less toxic the state is ranked. The decline comes from power companies’ investing in pollution controls before newer air quality standards come into effect.

The NRDC study, which reflects 2010 South Carolina data, shows that the toxic air pollution comes from coal-fired power plants that emit 9.3 million pounds of harmful chemicals, such as mercury, arsenic and lead, which accounted for 36 percent of state pollution. It also included pollution from the production of paper production plants that account for 35 percent of pollution.

The electric power sector is the largest industrial source of toxic air pollution in the U.S. and South Carolina has about a dozen coal plants, which are operated by companies, such as Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, SCANA and Progress Energy. Since 2005, several other coal plants have shut down to cut costs after trying to keep up with costly air quality regulations, while energy companies are seeking new options for producing electricity. For example, some companies are looking to increase nuclear power as a source of energy in South Carolina, which has the potential for other ill health effects. Other researchers are hoping to secure off-shore wind power as a source of energy for the state. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, toxic air pollution from coal power plants should decline during the next several years, which is hopefully good news. The EPA estimates that reductions in air pollution will prevent 11,000 premature deaths; 130,000 asthma attacks; 5,700 hospital visits; 4,700 heart attacks; and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis every year in the U.S.

Coal plants are also the target of many other environmental concerns, such as the Santee Cooper Grainger plant next to the Waccamaw River in Conway, which has been the subject of controversy due to the potential water pollution from its unlined coal ash ponds. These ponds may not fully contain coal ash and may cause detrimental effects to the river and groundwater. A lawsuit filed in June by three local environmental groups against Santee Cooper asks the court to find the utility in violation of South Carolina’s Pollution Control Act. They seek to have these areas cleaned up and the waste in the ponds moved to a lined landfill instead.

At a coal plant, coal is burned to create heat to turn water to steam, then the steam powers turbine blades, which connect to a generator to create electricity. After the coal has been burned, it creates a coal combustion residue byproduct that typically gets disposed of in a landfill or a coal ash pond. This byproduct waste contains trace concentrations of heavy metals and other substances, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, which is of health concern, especially in large quantities. However, coal ash is not classified as hazardous, although it is purported to cause environmental contamination and health concerns such as carcinogens that cause cancer. Only a small percentage of this ash gets recycled into products such as uses in concrete production, road subbase construction and grout production.

Part of improving our air quality comes from personal choice, such as reducing the number of miles we each drive in our personal vehicles. The pollution emitted from vehicles contributes to our air pollution about 28 percent. Overall, about 75 percent of air pollution originates from human-made sources and the Clean Air Act is supposed to control their emissions. However, when it comes to air quality, everyone plays a role in what they emit and breath, so we should do our part to make the world a breathable place.