A retired coal miner traveled roughly 1,300 miles from his home in Harlan County, Kentucky to Denver, Colorado where the Environmental Protection Agency was holding public hearings on its new proposed regulations to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
In the five minutes he was allotted, Stanley Sturgill spoke to the EPA about how he now suffers from black lung diseases among other respiratory illnesses and how the pollution from coal plants were adversely affecting not only his health, but the public’s too. His plea: “We’re dying, literally dying for you to help us.”
The hearing in Denver was one of several the EPA held across the country Tuesday and Wednesday to gauge public opinion on the Clean Power Plan, the new proposed regulations to cut carbon pollution emitted from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030 proposed in early June. Other hearings this week on the rule were held in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. At EPA’s headquarters in D.C., pollution’s health effects dominated the concerns of speakers giving their testimonies.
For Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, that meant the health of his son who seven years ago was diagnosed with serious asthma. “On one occasion, before we really understood what was happening, he woke up in the morning unable to breathe,” he said during his testimony. “It’s the kind of frightening experience a parent never forgets.”
Cizik was also part of the Environmental Working Group’s “Humane Toxome Project” which tested the Reverend’s body for 84 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals to see how his body was personally affected by the intake of pollution. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Cizik listed all the chemicals found present in his body: mercury, methylmercury, pesticides, lead, among 39 other pollutants.
“One reality is very clear,” Cizik said during his testimony. “The EPA’s first-ever carbon rule for regulating existing power plants is absolutely essential to reduce the effects of climate change that worsen smog and trigger asthma attacks and other health consequences.”
According to the EPA, the Clean Power Plan would eliminate 25 percent of the soot and smog polluting the air by 2030, and would help prevent 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths, 340 to 3,300 heart attacks, and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children like Cizik’s. The public health and climate benefits, the EPA estimates, are between between $55 billion and $93 billion, or upwards of $7 for each American family.
Some at the D.C. hearings said the regulations don’t go far enough, however, noting the potential shift away from coal will most likely result in an increase in use of natural gas. Though natural gas releases about half the carbon emissions as coal when burned, it is mostly methane, which is 86 times better at trapping heat as carbon dioxide. Scientists have found that even low leakage of methane from using natural gas resources is just as harmful for climate change as pollution from coal. And as it is now, methane leakage in the United States is quite high.
Natural gas production and its potential leakage can also impact health too, according to Dr. Poune Saberi, a physician in occupational and environmental medicine who works at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In places where natural gas booms are happening, such as Texas, families are increasingly experiencing symptoms such as chronic nose bleeding, irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and open sores from methane leakage. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Saberi said the EPA’s regulations on coal plants could lead to more health benefits — but only if states chose to switch to truly renewable sources when trying to reach their 2030 goals.
“Instead of switching from coal to natural gas or to nuclear, if states switch from coal to non-combustible sources to renewable sources, they will actually get there faster and it’s better for climate change and it’s better for the air,” Saberi said. “It’s almost like a win, win, win, but somehow that gets lost in the discussion.”
Sara Via, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, agreed.
“Natural gas is not the solution,” she said during her testimony. “It just swaps one health problem out for another.”