Health, environmental groups call for end of coal-fired power plants

By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal March 25, 2013

EDMONTON – Pollution from coal-fired power plants generates $300 million in medical costs and contributes to 100 premature deaths in Alberta each year, a study undertaken by a coalition of health and environmental groups shows.

Using data from industry and computer modelling developed by the Canadian Medical Association, the study suggests emissions from coal-fired electricity plants cause asthma sufferers to miss 4,800 days of work and school in Alberta and prompts 700 emergency-room visits from patients seeking treatment for respiratory and cardiovascular ailments each year.

“There is a misconception that we need to be using coal because it is cheap,” says Noah Farber, the director of communications and government relations for the Asthma Society of Canada. “But when you add in the related health-care costs, coal is not as reasonable as you think.”

Unveiling the results of its study at a news conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, the coalition will call on Alberta to develop a comprehensive renewable energy policy and adopt stricter standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

The province burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined, and greenhouse gas emissions from its six coal-fired plants are only slightly less than all of the emissions from oilsands operations combined.

“We believe that health costs from coal power can’t be overlooked anymore,” says Beth Nanni, a program specialist with the Lung Association of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. “We want coal to be phased out as soon as possible.”

New federal greenhouse gas regulations require conventional coal plants to be phased out over a period of 50 years but the coalition, which also includes the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Pembina Institute, wants them phased out more quickly in Alberta.

In 2011, Alberta coal plants emitted 33 per cent of the province’s entire output of sulphur dioxide, 10 per cent of its nitrogen oxides, six per cent of its fine particulate matter and 44 per cent of its mercury.

In addition to causing acid rain, nitrogen oxides form ground-level ozone, which is linked to the exacerbation of asthma, as is exposure to sulphur dioxide. Mercury emitted by coal plants can affect neurological development, while exposure to particulate matter is known to affect lung development in children and has also been associated with an increase in cardiac disease.

“The question on the table now is, ‘Can we make the process (of phasing out coal plants) occur faster than that?’ ” says Kevin Sauve, a communications adviser with the Pembina Institute. “We need to have a public discussion of what the real costs are.”

The study notes that other jurisdictions are moving away from coal-fired generation at the same time Alberta remains focused on it. Ontario’s coal fleet was once the size of Alberta’s, but will be phased out completely by the end of 2014. And once more dependent on coal than Alberta, Nova Scotia has legislated targets that require 40 per cent of its power to be generated by renewable electricity by 2020, which will cut its coal dependence in half.

“We are seeing other jurisdictions pull away from coal and are not really happy with the timeline here,” says Farrah Kahn, a campaigner with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, a national voice for doctors on health and conservation issues. “Our concerns are for the patients that are dealing with problems related to this. There are alternatives out there.

“We need a plan to put them in place so that have cleaner air and people are more healthy.”

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