Florida is the 6th worst state in the nation when it comes to exposing residents to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, according to an analysis released today in Florida by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Florida’s electric sector ranked 6th in industrial toxic air pollution in 2010, emitting nearly 16.7 million pounds of harmful chemicals, which accounted for 57 percent of state pollution and about 5 percent of toxic pollution from all U.S. power plants.
Florida ranked 15th among all states in industrial mercury air pollution from power plants, with about 1,710 pounds emitted in 2010, which accounted for 75 percent of state mercury air pollution and 3 percent of U.S. electric sector mercury pollution. Mercury contaminates fish and is most commonly absorbed by humans through fish consumption. Mercury poisoning can impair vision, speech and coordination, and lead to severe birth defects or worse.
On the national level, the report found a 19 percent decrease nationally in all air toxics emitted from power plants in 2010, the most recent data available, compared to 2009 levels. The welcomed drop, which also includes a 4 percent decrease in mercury emissions, results from two key factors. One is the increasing use by power companies of natural gas, which has become cheaper and is cleaner burning than coal; the other is the installation of state-of-the-art pollution controls by many plants–in anticipation of new health protections issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2011, Florida was second only to Texas in electricity generation from natural gas, at 62 percent of total power generated. Coal accounted for 23 percent, the State’s three nuclear power plants accounted for 9.8 percent, and other resources, including renewable energy, accounted for the remainder, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Florida’s shift from coal to natural gas has been dramatic over the years. In 2000, coal accounted for 28 percent of power generation, compared to 29 percent for natural gas.
Eight of Florida’s 10 largest power plants are fueled by natural gas, including the largest, Florida Power & Light’s 3,695 megawatt plant in Martin County. Progress Energy’s Crystal River power plant is the largest coal-fired plant in the state, with a capacity of 3,151 megawatts.
Despite the shift to natural gas, Florida’s total emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, has been increasing–from 91 million tons in 1990 to 124 million tons in 2010. Sulfur dioxide emissions, on the other hand–which is harmful to health and breathing–have plummeted, from 633,000 tons in 1990 to 160,000 tons in 2010.
Those reductions are the direct result of government intervention and regulation.
“Toxic pollution is already being reduced as a result of EPA’s health-protecting standards,” said John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director. “Thanks to the agency’s latest safeguards, millions of children and their families in the states hardest hit by toxic air pollution from power plants will be able to breathe easier.’’
“But these protections are threatened,” Walke said, “because polluters are intent on persuading future Congresses or presidential administrations to repeal them.”
Finalized in 2011, EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics standards will cut mercury air pollution by 79 percent from 2010 levels, beginning in 2015.
Sen. James Inhofe, R.-Okla., attempted in June to repeal mercury and air toxics standard. He called the new the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule, issued by the EPA last year, “one of the most expensive Environmental Protection Agency rules in history,” and described it as “the centerpiece of President Obama’s war on coal.”
“This rule will destroy jobs and cause energy prices to skyrocket,” Inhofe claimed. “By voting for my resolution, SJR 37, members of the Senate can prevent the Obama EPA from inflicting so much economic pain on American families.” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, opposed the Inhofe resolution. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, supported it. The final vote was 56 opposed, 46 for.
Franz Matzner, NRDC associate director of Government Affairs, said: “For too long, Americans have had no choice but to breathe toxic air pollution. Thanks to the EPA, the air is getting cleaner. But we need lawmakers who will help clean up the air we all breathe — not lawmakers who do the bidding of Big Polluters trying to repeal safeguards that protect children’s health. This and future Congresses should let the EPA do its job so ALL Americans can breathe easier.”
In the second edition of “Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States,” NRDC also found that coal- and oil-fired power plants still contribute nearly half (44 percent) of all the toxic air pollution reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The report also ranks the states by the amount of their toxic air pollution levels.
In an earlier assault on the EPA’s new standards, the House passed a bill to gut them last year; but a similar measure in June failed in the Senate.
Compared to 2010 levels, the standard will reduce mercury pollution from 34 tons to 7 tons, a 79 percent reduction, by 2015. Sulfur dioxide pollution will be reduced from 5,140,000 tons in 2010 to 1,900,000 tons in 2015, a 63 percent reduction. Another dangerous acid gas, hydrochloric acid, will be reduced from 106,000 tons in 2010 to 5,500 tons in 2015, a 95 percent reduction.
With those and other pollution reductions resulting from the standard, as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 hospital visits, 4,700 heart attacks, and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis will be avoided in 2016. The public health improvements are also estimated to save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs, and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or “sick” days each year.
Despite the overall reductions in total emissions, 18 of the Toxic 20 from 2009 remain in the 2010 list released today, although several states have made significant improvements highlighted in the report.
The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, known as the TRI, is a national database of toxic emissions self-reported by industrial sources. Power plants report emission of mercury, hydrochloric acid, and other hazardous metals.
NRDC released the first “Toxic 20” report in July 2011. The analysis used publicly-available data in the TRI to rank states by air pollution levels from 2009. Using the same methodology, today’s analysis compared TRI emissions reported for 2010 from the electric utilities sector to those from other sectors and ranked sources by total emissions by sector. The analysis identifies top emitting power plants based on toxic emissions reported to TRI.
For the full methodology, see the analysis “Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States,” below.