Environment Picture
Topic: Public Health

Consider all the costs when debating Detroit’s energy future

Health and environmental costs rarely part of the equation
Originally published in The Michigan Citizen

By Sandra Turner-Handy and Yvonne White

The Michigan Citizen’s Jan. 8 story on new limits for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants (“State addresses mercury contamination in Michigan Waters” by Eric T. Campbell) reported on the serious health impacts on persons consuming mercury-laced fish from the Detroit River and other Great Lakes waters. 

It also explained — through comment from a spokesman from a Michigan utility company — that complying with the new rules may contribute to rate increases for customers. 

Electric utilities never miss an opportunity to warn loudly and frequently of the costs of complying with public health and environmental regulations. But they are notoriously silent when it comes to communicating the cost of toxics spewed from coal plants into our waterways, neighborhoods and the lungs of our children, our friends and our neighbors.

Those costs are real — both in dollars and cents and in the diseases and heartache they inflict on the community. A report released in 2011 by the Michigan Environmental Council quantified some of those costs. They are staggering. Pollution from the state’s oldest nine coal power plants costs Michiganders $1.5 billion annually in health care costs and damages — the equivalent of more than $500 for a family of four. Those expenses are never reflected in utility bills, but instead are paid through health care premiums and co-pays and out-of-pocket cash at clinics, hospital emergency rooms and drugstore prescription counters. 

The cost in human suffering is incalculable. The report estimated the coal plant emissions annually account for 180 premature deaths, 233 hospital admissions or emergency room visits, 68,000 asthma exacerbations and 72,000 instances in which children were restricted from school or some other activity. 

The report, “Public Health Impacts of Old Coal-Fired Power Plants in Michigan,” was conservative and limited in scope. It examined the impact of only one pollutant (particulate matter) from merely nine of the state’s coal plants. 

Detroiters pay for pollution from coal power plants, such as the aging River Rouge plant. They pay through their utility bills and through health care costs. They also pay through the heartbreak of asthmatic children gasping for air and elderly parents suffering in hospital rooms. Sometimes they pay with their lives. 

These older plants aren’t just the worst polluters. They are the most expensive and least efficient in the state. The good news is there is a suite of cheaper, safer options available to help Detroiters meet energy needs. Aggressive energy efficiency measures, combined with renewable energy investments, can replace much of the dirty, dangerous and expensive coal-fired electricity. 

As we debate Detroit’s energy future — and the wisdom of restrictions on dangerous pollutants — it is imperative that all the costs are included in the equation, not merely the ones that appear on our monthly electricity bills. 

Sandra Turner-Handy is community outreach director at the Michigan Environmental Council. Yvonne White is president of the Michigan State Conference, NAACP.
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