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Kill Coal to Save Lives

It’s time to finish what the Obama administration started. It’s time to finish off coal.

Joe Biden speaks at an event on January 21.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule—the Trump administration’s attempt to relax (or rather, erase) standards for carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants—was unlawful, as it was based on a “fundamental misconstruction” of the Clean Air Act. Given that former President Trump’s Department of the Interior spent the past four years pursuing a campaign of deregulation and corporate land grabs, the decision by the court was heralded as a pre-inauguration gift for the Biden administration.

The appeals court’s ruling means that the new administration will have the opportunity to move ahead with regulation of the coal and natural gas industries without having to entirely redraft the Republicans’ now-vanquished archaic codes. Biden’s Cabinet will be able to adopt the principles of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which required power plants to reduce their emissions by 32 percent by 2030—a number that was designed to effectively force the closures of dozens of remaining coal plants in the United States. Compare this to the absurd ACE standard of 0.7 to 1.5 percent, and it should be fairly clear how momentous this ruling was for climate change, given that power generation currently sits as the second-highest contributor in the U.S.

But it’s important to note that the court’s decision was not just a gift for Biden and D.C.’s climate policy wonks. By reversing a policy designed to prolong the steady decline of the coal industry, this decision may also offer relief to countless communities that have been coerced into calling these plants neighbors for decades. Look closely at any one of the number of coal plants that still litter America’s landscape, and you’ll likely also find a trail of community-wide health scandals, all typically swept under the rug in the name of economic contributions. Whether the court meant it to or not, its ruling won’t just be seen as a political victory that will move us closer to hitting long-term emissions goals; it will also quite literally save lives.

The easiest place to start is at the top. The Miller coal plant, owned by Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power and located in Jefferson County, has long held the mantle of being one of the nation’s top greenhouse gas emitters. Speaking with Public Integrity in 2017, Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman casually admitted as much. “That’s kind of old news,” Sznajderman said. “It’s jostled for that No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 spot for years.” Southern’s CEO even went on CNBC to claim that the company’s carbon dioxide emissions were a nonissue as they related to climate change.

Miller has consistently earned an “F” ozone rating from the American Lung Association—cranking out close to 20 million metric tons of gas annually will do that. But as Public Integrity’s reporting showed, it also took a toll on a local level. Speaking with Public Integrity, attorney Scotty Colson described the company as a “good corporate citizen,” citing its consistent high employment rates and charity work. But after years of living with asthma and a burning sensation in his chest, Colson admitted that the trade-off is difficult to stomach. “You can question the science,” Colson said, “but you can’t question the reality of my lungs.”

In Texas, the NRG-owned WA Parish Generating Station has exacted a grim toll in exchange for the energy and jobs it’s provided the surrounding communities in Fort Bend County. Public Citizen noted last May that the pollutants emitted by the plant are estimated to be responsible for some 178 premature deaths each year. The promise of jobs dominates national discussion around coal. But the generating station’s emissions also cost the community money by way of medical bills. In a column for last November, writer Allyn West shared that one of his co-workers spent twice as much each month on asthma medication and air filters as they did on the electricity Parish provides along with the air pollutants. Meanwhile, NRG elected in the spring of 2020 to shut down the plant’s accompanying carbon capture unit—used to limit the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel operations and long bandied as a symbol of NRG’s commitment to “clean” energy—with the company saying that its continued use was “uneconomical.”

Should the new ruling and incoming regulations from the Biden administration succeed in ushering out coal, there’s also a case to be made that the benefits will extend beyond just protecting the surrounding community from breathing-related illnesses. In my home state of North Carolina, one of the defining scandals of the last decade was the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spill in the Dan River, which filled it with arsenic and selenium. The river provides drinking water throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Looking beyond the spill, the North Carolina Medical Journal found that for the past three decades, scientists have connected living near coal-fired plants with having “higher rates of all-cause and premature mortality, increased risk of respiratory disease and lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, poorer child health, and higher infant mortality.”

Even after these plants are retired, the risk for contamination will remain high. For years, coal ash has been stored by corporations in ostensibly contained ponds, many unlined, that often lie near natural bodies of water. Following the flooding from Hurricane Florence in 2018, the Neuse River overran the coal ash ponds at a retired coal plant in Goldsboro, causing arsenic levels to spike. During the same storm, the Cape Fear River was also exposed to coal ash after an unlined coal ash pond topped the retaining wall meant to block it from the river.

Despite Republican promises to the contrary, coal as an industry already has one foot in the grave. The CPP’s intended effect—replacing coal as the country’s main energy production source—has largely been seen through, even without the CPP in full effect. As Rebecca Leber wrote for The New Republic in 2015, the coal industry was already bleeding jobs by the thousands because renewables and natural gas drastically drove down production costs, and the once-dominant economic force has shrunk and relocated from its stronghold in Central Appalachia to Wyoming. In return for poisoning the surrounding area and warming the world, the coal industry can’t realistically even provide abundant, stable jobs anymore—although whether that was ever a good trade is doubtful. The Biden administration now has the chance to finish the job once and for all, as it well should. After all, coal will be the easy fight—if the administration creates newer, greener jobs as promised, it will be offering steadier employment that, as a side benefit, doesn’t poison the region’s children. Compared to the task of vaccinating a nation or heeding demands for more pipeline cancellations, that should be an easy sell.