Thursday, March 26, 2009

You'll have noted that there has been no activity on this blog for a long, long while.

Unfortunately, during that time Santee Cooper's ill-considered coal plant proposal has not gone away.

Fortunately, opposition to Santee Cooper and its plans has only grown.

There is now a new blog devoted to the issue here (,
and a great website devoted to stopping the plant here, (

Both will keep you up to date on what is going on and how to get involved.

In time, this unfortunate proposal will be cancelled (like 95 others) and South Carolina will finally be able to get to work building this state's energy future.

Till then,


John Mellor

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mercury Rising

Troubling news from ScienceDaily. More reasons to question the wisdom of adding more mercury to an already saturated South Carolina with a new coal plant.

Autism Risk Linked To Distance From Power Plants, Other Mercury-releasing Sources

ScienceDaily (Apr. 25, 2008) — How do mercury emissions affect pregnant mothers, the unborn and toddlers? Do the level of emissions impact autism rates? Does it matter whether a mercury-emitting source is 10 miles away from families versus 20 miles? Is the risk of autism greater for children who live closer to the pollution source?

A newly published study of Texas school district data and industrial mercury-release data, conducted by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, indeed shows a statistically significant link between pounds of industrial release of mercury and increased autism rates. It also shows—for the first time in scientific literature—a statistically significant association between autism risk and distance from the mercury source.

“This is not a definitive study, but just one more that furthers the association between environmental mercury and autism,” said lead author Raymond F. Palmer, Ph.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. The article is in the journal Health & Place.

Dr. Palmer, Stephen Blanchard, Ph.D., of Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and Robert Wood of the UT Health Science Center found that community autism prevalence is reduced by 1 percent to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution source.

“This study was not designed to understand which individuals in the population are at risk due to mercury exposure,” Dr. Palmer said. “However, it does suggest generally that there is greater autism risk closer to the polluting source.”

The study should encourage further investigations designed to determine the multiple routes of mercury exposure. “The effects of persistent, low-dose exposure to mercury pollution, in addition to fish consumption, deserve attention,” Dr. Palmer said. “Ultimately, we will want to know who in the general population is at greatest risk based on genetic susceptibilities such as subtle deficits in the ability to detoxify heavy metals.”

The new study findings are consistent with a host of other studies that confirm higher amounts of mercury in plants, animals and humans the closer they are to the pollution source. The price on children may be the highest.

“We suspect low-dose exposures to various environmental toxicants, including mercury, that occur during critical windows of neural development among genetically susceptible children may increase the risk for developmental disorders such as autism,” the authors wrote.

Study highlights

* Mercury-release data examined were from 39 coal-fired power plants and 56 industrial facilities in Texas.
* Autism rates examined were from 1,040 Texas school districts.
* For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by all industrial sources in Texas into the environment in 1998, there was a corresponding 2.6 percent increase in autism rates in the Texas school districts in 2002.
* For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by Texas power plants in 1998, there was a corresponding 3.7 percent increase in autism rates in Texas school districts in 2002.
* Autism prevalence diminished 1 percent to 2 percent for every 10 miles from the source.
* Mercury exposure through fish consumption is well documented, but very little is known about exposure routes through air and ground water.
* There is evidence that children and other developing organisms are more susceptible to neurobiological effects of mercury.


“We need to be concerned about global mercury emissions since a substantial proportion of mercury releases are spread around the world by long-range air and ocean currents,” Dr. Palmer said. “Steps for controlling and eliminating mercury pollution on a worldwide basis may be advantageous. This entails greener, non-mercury-polluting technologies.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated environmental mercury releases at 158 million tons annually nationwide in the late 1990s, the time period studied by the Texas team. Most exposures were said to come from coal-fired utility plants (33 percent of exposures), municipal/medical waste incinerators (29 percent) and commercial/industrial boilers (18 percent). Cement plants also release mercury.

With the enactment of clean air legislation and other measures, mercury deposition into the environment is decreasing slightly.


Dr. Palmer and his colleagues pointed out the study did not reflect the true community prevalence rates of autism because children younger than school age are not counted in the Texas Education Agency data system. The 1:500 autism rates in the study are lower than the 1:150 autism rates in recent reports of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Furthermore, the authors note that distance was not calculated from individual homes to the pollution source but from central points in school districts that varied widely in area.

Data sources

Data for environmentally released mercury were from the United States Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory. Data for releases by coal-fired power plants came from the same inventory and from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. Data for school district autism came from the Texas Education Agency.

Journal reference: Palmer, R.F., et al., Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence. Health & Place (2008), doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.02.001.

Adapted from materials provided by University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pee Dee Timeline & Video

See below for a timeline of events related to the Pee Dee coal plant proposal. These were compiled by the Florence Morning News.

Click here to view a video on the Florence Morning News website featuring Terri Cook, a Pamplico resident who lives next to the proposed coal site. There's also some pro coal guy on in the video who thinks (erroneously) the new coal plant will bring a lot of jobs to the area.

Timeline of proposed coal-fired plant in Kingsburg
Saturday, Apr 19, 2008

Santee Cooper has proposed a 600-megawatt coal-fired generation facility, which would be located on a 2,709-acre tract in Kingsburg. The facility is scheduled to become operational sometime after 2012.

Officials within the company have said the energy produced by the plant is necessary to South Carolina to prevent a power shortage in the next five years.

Area residents have been divided on the issue, and an end to the debate is nowhere in sight.

Below is a timeline of the events surrounding the proposed coal plant thus far.

On April 21, 2006: Santee Cooper announces plans for a 600 megawatt pulverized coal facility with an estimated cost of $984.

On May 22, 2006: The proposed completion date is cut by two years — putting the expected completion date in 2012 — and adding $14 million to the price tag for the plant.

On Oct. 7, 2006: Santee Cooper begins submitting permits in the hopes of clearing the land of the proposed site in Kingsburg.

On Oct. 24, 2006: Pamplico Mayor Gene Gainey announces his stand in favor of the coal plant. Also, Santee Cooper announces plans to begin construction in March 2007.

On March 20, 2007: The first of the groups opposing the coal plant begin to surface. Southern Environmental Law Center and the Coastal Conservation League began making their opinions against the proposed plant known.

On March 21, 2007: Santee Cooper extols the need for more power in South Carolina, saying the company will be 385 megawatts short of the amount needed to power homes in the region by 2012, if the plant isn’t built.

On April 30: Santee Cooper announces its intention to use a more in-depth version of the Environmental Impact Statement as required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This process will delay the construction of the coal plant by 14 to 18 months.

On May 2: Florence County Council announces its support for proposed plant.

On July 12: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control holds an informal public meeting to answer questions about the proposed facility.

On July 17: Columbia-based environmental consulting firm, LPA Group Inc. is selected to perform an evaluation of the environmental impact statement.

On Sept. 17: DHEC issues the draft of the Prevention Significant Deterioration despite many requests not to by conservationists and some residents.

On Sept. 27: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds two public scoping meetings to hear the concerns of residents affected by the proposed plant.

On Oct. 25: Members of the Coastal Conservation League, the S.C. Wildlife Federation, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the S.C. Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and residents of the Pamplico and Kingsburg areas gather at the S.C. Statehouse to protest the proposed plant.

On Oct. 31: Health care professionals in the Pee Dee gather to protest the plant, citing health issues as a reason for DHEC to deny the draft air permits.

On Nov. 8: DHEC holds a public hearing on the draft air permits for the Santee Cooper facility to better address the concerns of the residents in the area. Gainey presents a petition signed by more than 1,000 people in favor of the plant. Mike King, a local environmentalist and resident of the Kingsburg area, also presents a petition signed by more than 400 residents of the area who are against the plant.

On Dec. 13: Francis Marion University professors conduct an in-depth look into the economic benefits of the proposed coal plant, determining $900 million in economic output and 9,300 jobs will be brought to the region as a result of the project, based on information provided by Santee Cooper.

On Jan. 22: Formation of the Pee Dee Supporters for Progress is announced in support of the plant.

On Jan. 23: Conservation groups release 136-page analysis of coal plants, detailing potentially harmful effects.

On Jan. 29: Attorneys General from eight states urge DHEC to reconsider the draft air permits.

On Feb. 8: The federal court rules the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Air Act by removing coal and oil plants from the list of hazardous air pollution sources.

On March 3: Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter defends the need for the coal-fired facility to the members of the Florence Rotary Club.

On March 19: Santee Cooper announces plans to move forward with the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT), as required by the federal court’s ruling in February.

On March 27: Santee Cooper announces plan to increase the cost of the proposed coal plant from $998 million to $1.25 billion, citing growing costs of gasoline and building materials.

On April 11: Eastern Carolina Development Corp. and the Coastal Conservation League join forces to contract an outside data firm to review the economic data of the coal plant. The data from the report, using public information, shows markedly different results than the one conducted by FMU professors in December. According to the new report, only 228 jobs would come to the region as a result of the plant.

The Environmental Impact Statement has not been released by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Although DHEC has approved a draft air permit, it is not the final permit needed for Santee Cooper to follow through with plans to begin construction of the facility.

Below is a comparison of two Santee Cooper coal plants. The Cross Three facility began producing power in January, while the rates for the Pee Dee Energy Campus are projected rates based on analysis so far. The rates are per megawatt hour.

Cross Three:
Carbon dioxide: 1,944
Sulfur dioxide: 0.512
Nitrogen oxides: 0.758
Mercury: 0.0000342

Pee Dee Energy Campus
Carbon dioxide: 1,784
Sulfur dioxide: 0.470
Nitrogen Oxides: 0.696
Mercury: Projected emission rates will be released after MACT analysis is completed in May.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Answer: Blowing in the Wind

Once again, our sister state to the north is getting there first. With one of the largest (offshore) wind resources in the nation, South Carolina can certainly more than catch up.

Note that this wind farm is being built by private citizens. If they can do it, so can the "experts."

Lawmakers in North Carolina know that. That's why they are REQUIRING utilities there to generate 12.5% of their power from renewables and efficiency over the next 12 years.

If our state's utilities would put as much effort (and money) into renewables and efficiency, we wouldn't be having this coal plant fight.

That might be happening in some of our state's utilities. It clearly isn't in others.

From the Charlotte N&O:

State clears coastal wind farmJohn Murawski, Staff Writer
Raleigh entrepreneurs Nelson and Dianna Paul cleared the first hurdle Thursday toward building the state's largest wind power plant in Bettie, east of Morehead City.

The state Utilities Commission approved the proposed project -- on condition that the wind farm is permitted by Carteret County and also cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The county has imposed a moratorium on wind farms as officials there try to establish regulations for the structures in coastal areas. The three turbines proposed by Paul would exceed 400 feet in height with blades fully extended upward, towering more than twice as high as the Cape Lookout lighthouse. Residents have lobbied against the wind turbines as an eyesore and environmental hazard.

The Pauls must still apply for a permit from the FAA for their 4.5 megawatt Golden Wind Farm. The federal agency requires assurance that the turbines will not interfere with the flight path of a nearby airport and that they will not cause radio interference with an air traffic control radar.

The state approval is also conditional on the Pauls conducting a study to determine whether the airspace above the turbines can generate sufficient wind activity to justify the project. The question decided by the Utilities Commission on Thursday was whether there was a public need in the state for the wind farm.

The Pauls' proposal would provide power for about 900 homes when the wind is blowing, which is about 35 percent of the time.

"Honestly, it blows so much, it's a nuisance," Dianna Paul said.

The largest wind project in the state is a 50-kilowatt private turbine operated by military security contractor Blackwater Worldwide at the company's head- quarters in Currituck County. The Blackwater turbine generates enough electricity to power the equivalent of about eight homes.

The Pauls, both real estate agents in Raleigh, are Carteret County natives who own the 33.3-acre farm where the wind turbines would be built. Nelson Paul once worked as a wetlands scientist for the N.C. Division of Coastal Management.

The Pauls are in discussions to have Progress Energy buy the electricity that Golden Wind would produce. Private generators are not allowed to sell electricity directly to retail customers in North Carolina; they can only sell at wholesale rates to public utilities.

Progress is exploring renewable-energy options. A new state state law requires that utilities derive 12.5 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources or efficiency programs by 2021.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Common Sense from Florence

The following open letter to the state's elected officials appeared in yesterday's Florence Morning News. Here's hoping they listen to this reasonable man.

Compromise should be reached on power plant
Thursday, Apr 24, 2008 - 04:00 AM
By Christopher Goss, Florence

I am pro-power, and I am pro-jobs. However, I ask that you please listen to those voicing concerns about the proposed power plant and work together with them and Santee Cooper to reach a compromise acceptable to both parties. As our elected officials, you have been chosen to lead based on your ability to make wise decisions now in anticipation of future events. This type of pulverized-coal plant in the Pee Dee’s mercury triangle is simply a bad idea both now and in the future.

As a chemist, I am concerned about the increased levels of methylmercury and DHEC’s refusal to at least test people and establish a mercury baseline from which one might see the power plant’s impact on our citizens’ health. As an outdoorsman, I am appalled at the lack of concern for our polluted rivers and lack of signage to educate the public how polluted our rivers are. However, it is as a fiscal conservative that I vehemently oppose the current plan. How can we let our public utility make such a horrible business decision under our watch? Just this week, George Bush has changed his stance and says he wants to rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions.

McCain, Obama and Clinton all hold more aggressive stances supporting mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. Face it. In the future, there will be carbon taxes and/or mandatory emission caps on nearly all the pollutants this type of plant releases.

Even the fair and balanced Fox News aired an ICCR article warning investors that coal is losing its appeal as a predictable investment and is instead fraught with uncertainty.

Building this type of pulverized-coal plant now costs 100 percent more than it did in 2002 and there appears to be no end to the skyrocketing costs.

Make no mistake. As said above, I am definitely pro-power and pro-jobs. Let’s just have some common sense and hold a public utility accountable for wanting to build a plant now that will face serious construction costs and delays and be prohibitively expensive to maintain and operate in the future.

There are other smarter alternatives that will create more, better jobs and cleaner electricity. After all, privately-held Duke Power and Progress Energy both have enough foresight to move past this type of pulverized-coal plant.

Please just listen and do what’s best for all parties involved.

After all, that’s what we elected you to do.

SCE&G Steps Up; S-C Lays Low

Some utilities, at least, are trying to get it right (It can be done, after all).

Scana aims to sell less power
Company says it will continue to help customers conserve energy

By Kyle Stock
The Post and Courier
Friday, April 25, 2008

COLUMBIA — Scana Corp., the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas, dyed itself a deeper shade of green at its annual shareholders meeting Thursday.

The Columbia-based utility, following the lead of others in its industry, said it will continue to help its customers buy less of its power.

"Permanent irreversible reductions in electric demand are rational, save valuable resources and are clearly the right thing to do," Scana Chief Executive Officer William Timmerman told about 100 shareholders, directors and executives Thursday. "Conservation is very much on everyone's minds today."

The company announced the appointment of a new executive in charge of conservation, which it internally refers to as "demand-side management." And it is considering some aggressive "green" initiatives, including replacing its fleet of cars and trucks with hybrid vehicles, converting one of its coal plants to burn natural gas and using ponds of algae to gobble up carbon dioxide emissions.

Timmerman also said the utility has decided not to build any new coal-fired plants because of the surging price of the fuel and its relatively high emissions, which soon might be subject to a form of federal tax.

"We've just continued to push the envelope away from coal," Timmerman said. "We really did not want to create more issues for our customers by building a coal-fired plant."

Timmerman reaffirmed the company's plans to build two nuclear reactors next to a plant it co-owns with Santee Cooper near Jenkinsville. If all goes as planned, the new units would crank up in 2016 and 2019, boosting Scana generation capacity by 20 percent.

"The more we did the analysis, the more we became convinced," Timmerman said. "Nuclear became the clear choice."

For now, however, Scana has power to spare and is selling more of it than ever. The utility reported a 27 percent increase in first-quarter income Thursday, as factories and new customers sucked more electricity from its grid, despite a slowing economy and a dismal real estate market.

Scana posted income of $109 million, or 94 cents per share, in the first three months of the year, compared with $86 million, or 73 cents per share, in the first quarter of 2007. Revenue climbed 12 percent from $1.36 billion to $1.53 billion. The results handily beat analyst expectations of a profit of 76 cents per share.

"It was a solid quarter," said Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Addison. "It looks really impressive compared to a year ago, which was a miserable quarter."

Thanks to new customers and robust industrial demand, the utility sold 4.5 percent more electricity in the first quarter.

In the past year, Scana signed on 2.1 percent more electricity customers, boosting its total to 643,000 homes and businesses. Its natural gas users swelled 1.4 percent to 1.3 million.

The company reaffirmed its expectation to earn between $2.90 and $3.05 per share this year. "There's nothing out there that indicates that the inward migration to our service territories will slow," Timmerman said.

Scana also increased its annual dividend 4.5 percent to $1.84 per share.

Angie McClam, president of the Association of Scana Corp. Investors, said she was pleased with the earnings announced Thursday. "I'm real proud of Scana stock. It's holding its own," she said. "Apparently, we've got good management."

Scana's stock jumped 72 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $39.55 on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday. The shares began trading this year at $42.07.

Read more about how coal is "off the table" for SCANA/SCE&G over at The State. It makes one wonder, if Santee Cooper wasn't insulated from market forces and regulatory oversight on account of its status as a quasi-state agency (e.g. a socialist entity), would it still be pursuing a coal plant? In a state whose politics run deep with free-market conservative thought, you'd think this question would be troubling to many.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dorthy to Coal: We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Kansas Governor Vetoes Second Coal-Fired Power Bill
TOPEKA, Kansas
April 17, 2008 (ENS)

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, today again vetoed legislation that would have overturned a decision of her administration to deny an permit application to build two new coal-fired power plants in western Kansas.

The measure, SB 148, supported mainly by Republicans, passed without a veto-proof majority of state legislators.

Last October Secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment Rob Bremby denied a permit to regional wholesale power supplier Sunflower Electric Power Corporation to build two new 700 megawatt power plants at its Holcomb Station because of the greenhouse gases they would have produced.

The bill Sebelius vetoed today would have permitted the power plants and stripped the state agency of the power to deny such permits in the future if they held utilities to standards stricter than those in the federal Clean Air Act.
"Legislators who promote the expansion of coal-fired plants in Kansas made a strategic decision with SB 148," said Sebelius. "Rather than working toward a compromise solution or having any conversation about energy policy, this bill was drafted behind closed doors. It contains the same onerous elements of the previous bill that I vetoed; and again, these are elements I cannot accept and will not support."

"This maneuver has done nothing to address the issues at hand - developing comprehensive energy policy, providing base-load energy power for Western Kansas, implementing carbon mitigation strategies and capitalizing on our incredible assets for additional wind power," the governor said.

Opponents of the Sunflower project say wind and conservation are better alternatives to new coal plants, which will send 85 percent of their electricity outside the state anyway.

Supporters say Western Kansas needs the power, and that rejecting the plants will create an unstable business climate and scare future investments away.
But the political climate is changing and supporters of coal power are facing challenging times at both federal and state levels.

President George W. Bush, a long-time climate change skeptic, announced a policy shift Wednesday that would halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2025. While not soon enough for many scientists and environmentalists, the announcement signals a recognition that climate change is a real threat that the government must address.

Sebelius said today that the president's announcement underlines the necessity of her decision not to allow more coal-fired power plants to be construction in Kansas.

"President Bush has announced a new goal for stopping the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and recognized that the power sector must make significant efforts to achieve that goal," she said.

"Since the most likely way to achieve this goal is through a cap and trade system, which would, in effect, tax carbon, it would be unfair to Kansans for our utilities to build coal-fired plants for other states until we can evaluate the costs of those plants for Kansas tax payers and rate payers."

"We must remember the decisions we make today have a huge impact on Kansans for generations to come. The challenges before us can and should be met through a common sense solution," she said. "I am still hopeful we can have meaningful discussions about a true compromise; rather than being sent the same bill in disguise yet again."

With this action, Sebelius has signed 91 bills this legislative session and vetoed two.

Dirty Water

Not only do some utilities want to continue fouling our air and contaminating our bodies with pollution from coal plants, some also want to use their power plants to drain our rivers dry. See this article from the State:

Logjam is dooming water withdrawal bill

An impasse between big business and conservation groups has all but killed a plan to protect rivers and drinking water across South Carolina.

Without a law to oversee water withdrawals:

n South Carolina’s drinking water plants and industries could be vulnerable if new companies divert water upstream.

• The Palmetto State will have a harder time striking deals with Georgia and North Carolina for the use of common rivers, including the Savannah and Catawba, negotiators say.

The bill, which has bogged down in the Legislature, would, for the first time, require permits — and state oversight — for new or expanding industries that want to draw at least 3 million gallons per month from a river.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman said it’s a shame the Legislature could not reach an agreement.

“It is important for everyone to know who is sticking a straw in the river,” said Merryman, whose river today has been named the nation’s most endangered. “You can’t have withdrawals that are unchecked.”

Donna Lisenby, founder of Waterkeepers Carolina, said South Carolina’s failure to pass a bill could set back efforts to launch a permitting program in North Carolina that would protect users downstream in the Palmetto State. Tarheel legislators were looking to South Carolina for direction, she said.

While the bill is on the Senate’s calendar in South Carolina, it has been contested — which severely damages the possibility of passage this year, said its sponsor, Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York. The Senate would have to vote on the bill by May 1 so the House could debate it.

“I’m going to keep fighting,” Hayes said. “We have got to get a handle on our surface water withdrawals or you’re going to have battles like out West, where you don’t have enough.”

Led by Duke Energy Inc., industries fought strict versions of the bill that would keep companies from drawing rivers to low levels. Industry favored versions of the bill that would allow withdrawals below what state scientists said was good for fish and wildlife.

Power companies, who say the federal government already regulates their dams, use the majority of surface water in South Carolina. Most are proposing new power plants in the state.

Duke, for instance, plans a nuclear plant near Gaffney that will need more than 35 million gallons each day from the Broad River basin. Duke already consumes about 60 million gallons per day for existing power stations in the Upstate.

Santee Cooper, which takes about 58 million gallons per day for its existing plants, wants to consume at least 9 million gallons more each day for a proposed coal-fired power plant on the Great Pee Dee River. SCE&G could not provide comparable statistics this week.

Major environmental groups, once the permitting bill’s staunchest supporters, last week vowed to fight the legislation in the Senate because they said the latest versions don’t do enough to protect the public and wildlife.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Coal Kills

We've heard a lot this week about how a coal plant in South Carolina won't create jobs or wealth for South Carolinians -- despite the claims of the utility that wants to build one.

But all these economic arguments are moot're dead. See below for the latest news from the United States National Acedemy of Sciences, the most prestigeous scientific body in our country. They are stating in no uncertain terms that smog is deadly.

The Pee Dee plant will emit thousands of tons of poisonous gases that lead directly to ozone or smog every year.

This means that Santee Cooper's proposed coal plant, if built, can be expected to kill South Carolinians -- and that is no exaggeration.

The Federal government recently strengthened laws limiting ozone pollution, though it failed to tighten standards as much as health and scientific experts recommended. Even so, our state's Department of Health and Environmental Control is predicting that Florence county will have more smog in its air than is allowed by the new law.

That's without a new coal plant in Florence County. Folks who support this plant should stop and consider what it might do to the health of residents of the Pee Dee. If our nation's top scientists have anything to say about it, it is a matter of life...and death -- and that is no exaggeration.

US science panel says link between smog and premature death is clear
April 22, 2008 11:01 AM EDT

WASHINGTON - Short-term exposure to smog, or ozone, is clearly linked to premature deaths that should be taken into account when measuring the health benefits of reducing air pollution, a U.S. National Academy of Sciences report concluded Tuesday.

The findings contradict arguments made by some White House officials that the connection between smog and premature death has not been shown sufficiently, and that the number of saved lives should not be calculated in determining clean air benefits.

The report by a panel of the Academy's National Research Council says government agencies "should give little or no weight" to such arguments.

"The committee has concluded from its review of health-based evidence that short-term exposure to ambient ozone is likely to contribute to premature deaths," the 13-member panel said.

It added that "studies have yielded strong evidence that short-term exposure to ozone can exacerbate lung conditions, causing illness and hospitalization and can potentially lead to death."

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which in its review of air quality regulations has raised questions about the certainty of the pollution and mortality link, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

"The report is a rebuke of the Bush administration which has consistently tried to downplay the connection between smog and premature death," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the Academy's findings "refutes the White House skepticism and denial" of a proven link between acute ozone exposure and premature deaths. Such arguments have been used to diminish the health benefits of reducing air pollution, she said.

The Academy panel examined short-term exposure - up to 24 hours - to high levels of ozone, but said more studies also were needed on long-term chronic exposure where the risk of premature death "may be larger than those observed in acute effects studies alone."

Ground-level ozone is formed from nitrogen oxide and organic compounds created by burning fossil fuels and is demonstrated often by the yellow haze or smog that lingers in the air. Ozone exposure is a leading cause of respiratory illnesses and especially affects the elderly, those with respiratory problems and children.

While premature death from ozone exposure is greater among individuals with lung and heart disease, the report said such deaths are not restricted to people who are at a high risk of death within a few days.

The scientists said they could not determine, based on a review of health studies, whether there is a threshold below which no fatalities can be assured from ozone exposure. If there is such a point, it is below the ozone levels allowed for public health.

Environmentalists and health advocates have argued that a string of health studies and surveys show that exposure to smoggy air not only aggravates respiratory problems, but causes thousands of deaths a year.

But in a number of instances the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews regulations, have been at odds over the certainty of a link between smog levels and deaths.

Patton said the OMB in a number of air pollution regulations has sought to minimize the relationship of pollution and premature deaths, resulting in a lower calculation of health benefits from pollution reductions.

"This has been used by industry to try to attack health standards by minimizing the societal benefits," said Patton.

One such case involves the EPA's decision last month to toughen the ozone health standard, reducing the allowable concentration in the air.

When the cost-benefit analysis was being prepared in connection with the rulemaking, the OMB argued there is "considerable uncertainty" in the association between ozone levels and deaths.

As a result, the EPA issued a wide cost-benefit range from an annual net societal cost of $20 billion (euro12.5 billion) to a savings of $23 billion (euro14.4 billion), depending largely on whether one takes into account lives saved from ozone-related premature deaths.

OMB officials also have objected to the EPA quantifying ozone-related mortality benefits in new emissions standards for lawn mowers and other small engines that release large amounts of ozone-forming pollution.

In response, the EPA removed "all references to quantified ozone benefits" in the proposed rule, according to an e-mail sent by EPA to the OMB. The small engine regulation is awaiting final action.