03/26/2013 08:00 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Coal Power Study Finds Health Impacts Very Dangerous

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2009 file photo, steam and smoke is seen over the coal burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Slowing the buildup of greenhouse gases responsible for warming the planet is one of the biggest challenges the U.S. _ and President Barack Obama _ faces. The impacts of rising global temperatures are widespread and costly: more severe storms, rising seas, species extinctions, and changes in weather patterns that will alter food production and the spread of disease. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

EDMONTON - A study says coal-fired power generation is likely to cause thousands of early deaths in Alberta and cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars before government regulations force plants to reduce emissions.

The study also says the plants — many of which have decades to comply with new federal emissions rules — will also be behind thousands more hospital admissions and lost workdays. It concludes the costs associated with poorer health and reduced productivity amount to a subsidy for generators because they don't have to pay for them.

"In essence, it's a health subsidy that's being picked up by the people of Alberta," said report author Tim Weis of the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute.

But an industry official said other studies tell a different story.

The institute teamed with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Alberta and N.W.T. Lung Association and the Asthma Society of Canada on the report that was released Tuesday.

The study combined previous research measuring the health effects of various pollutants with the known amounts of pollution coming from Alberta's many coal-fired power plants, which burn more coal than the rest of the country combined.

It draws on many studies from the U.S. and Canada on contaminants including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury and particulates and uses figures on the amount of those toxins released by each generator from the federal pollution inventory.

The groups also considered how long each of Alberta's plants will continue to emit. Federal rules say coal-fired power stations have 50 years after their construction before they are obliged to reduce their emissions to match those of natural gas-fuelled generators, although provincial regulations could limit that to 40 years.

Using a peer-reviewed model developed by the Canadian Medical Association, the report estimates that between 2008 and 2031, there will be just over 3,000 premature deaths from health problems related to coal-fired electricity. It predicts there will be more than 2,000 hospital admissions for the same reasons, nearly 10,000 visits to emergency wards and more than 100,000 instances of asthma sufferers having to restrict their activities.

Those impacts are a small fraction of overall hospital or emergency visits, but Weis said that shouldn't reduce their importance.

"That doesn't diminish the fact that those are real people going to real hospitals," he said.

And the impacts have a price.

Depending on how they're calculated, Weis said health costs of coal-fired power work out to between 0.7 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2.1 cents. That amounts to about $300 million a year.

Weis said if that figure were reflected in the price of coal-fired power, renewable energy would look more attractive.

Weis acknowledged the conclusions are based on mathematical modelling.

"This stuff is hard to quantify and that can be an easy defence to hide behind," he said. "But we know that all of these pollutants aren't good for us.

Don Wharton, vice-president of sustainability for TransAlta utilities, said the report should have mentioned extensive data compiled in 2006 by the University of Alberta and provincial government. That study examined air quality and health status in a 100-kilometre radius of the province's largest coal-fired plants.

"The human health status in that region was as good as anywhere else in the province," Wharton said. "There was no indication of significant human health effects associated with industry nearby."

Current air monitoring around TransAlta generators shows contaminant levels are a small fraction of provincial guidelines, he added.

Weis said his group is aware of that work.

"Our research did not conclude that there is an acute emergency here," he said. "However, there are real long-term costs, both on the health side and on the (greenhouse gas) side, that are not (paid by industry), so the sooner that happens the better."

Wharton said replacing Alberta's generating capacity with cleaner gas- or wind-powered facilities would increase the price of power by about 30 to 40 per cent.

And the possible health savings from lower-emitting plants are small compared to the cost of refitting them, he said. TransAlta alone has $8 billion worth of coal-fired power plants in the province and $300 million couldn't do much more than pay for a single sulphur dioxide scrubber on one plant, Wharton said.

He suggested current regulations will force TransAlta to reduce most of the pollutants in the report by at least 80 per cent by 2030.

"The real question is, do we need to do that faster or not? Doing it faster just increases the costs."

Alberta politicians also chimed in on the report.

Energy Minister Ken Hughes defended the government's record. He said the province's coal-fired plants have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 12 million tonnes since 2007.

"Demand for electricity is growing and the use of coal helps keep our industries competitive and Albertans' home power bills affordable."

Alberta Environment figures show that since 2006, sulphur dioxide emissions have been reduced by a total of 25,000 tonnes and nitrogen dioxide by 45,000 tonnes.

Alberta Liberal health critic Dr. David Swann said Alberta should introduce incentives for converting plants to natural gas. He suggested the province should also stick to its guns on enforcing the 40-year threshold for coal-fired plants to upgrade.

Joe Anglin, environment critic for the Opposition Wildrose party, said the government should speed up the reduction of coal-fired power by using gasified coal, natural gas and hydro.

Farrah Khan from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment said the report shows it's high time the provincial government came up with a plan to reduce coal-fired generation and encourage cleaner energy.

"From the health perspective we want to see this happen as quickly as we can," she said. "We'd like to see a renewable energy policy in Alberta.

"That's a big part of the solution."

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