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Study Projects Death, Illness from Coal Power Plants

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Air pollution from coal-fired power plants cause about 24,000 premature deaths a year nationwide, a new study indicates.

The study, prepared by Abt Associates, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's consultant on air pollution impacts, found that 22,000 of those deaths, along with many nonfatal heart attacks and tens of hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, could be prevented by requiring power plants to install currently available pollution control technology. However, revisions to federal pollution control rules favored by the Bush administration would reduce deaths far less -- by about 10,000 per year in 2020 -- than the limits a bipartisan group of senators proposed in 1999, the study concluded. Abt, based in Cambridge, Mass., released a similar study in 2000 before multiple medical studies linked power plant pollutants with increased risk of cancer and heart attacks.

Unveiled in cities across the nation on Wednesday, the new study was commissioned by a coalition of environmental groups known as Clear the Air. Paid for by the Pew Charitable Trusts, it was reviewed and embraced by a number of organizations with scientific or medical credentials, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, a 1985 Nobel Prize winner.

"The scientists in our headquarters office believe this is sound science and should raise alarm bells," said Lisa Doggett, an Austin family practice doctor who helped organize the physician group's new Austin chapter, which released the study in Austin along with the Texas Public Interest Research Group.

"The evidence, from groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, is growing that pollution from power plants can be a significant cause of health problems, such as cancer and heart attacks, in addition to asthma attacks," said Doggett, daughter of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D). "Between 10 and 20 percent of my patients (at the People's Community Clinic) suffer from asthma or a respiratory disease." Statewide, the pollution from coal-fired power plants causes 144 lung cancer deaths, 1,791 nonfatal heart attacks and nearly 34,000 asthma attacks each year, the study found. Texas ranks sixth in the nation in total deaths, but did not make the top 15 in deaths per capita.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area had the biggest health impacts of Texas metro areas, with 290 early deaths, 476 nonfatal heart attacks and 10,263 asthma attacks annually. Houston was close behind, with San Antonio and Austin lagging significantly in deaths, though not so dramatically for asthma attacks.

Travis County sees about 29 premature deaths annually from power plant pollutants, 53 additional heart attacks and about 1,327 asthma attacks, the study estimated.

The relatively limited death toll in Central Texas is in great part because the most significant contributor to premature deaths -- soot, also known as fine particle pollution -- tends to cause the most health damage very close to the power plants that emit it. In Texas, unlike many Midwest and East Coast states, power plants are concentrated in rural areas where fewer people breath the pollutants.

However, the power plant pollutant that is key to the formation of lung-damaging ozone pollution -- nitrogen oxides -- can, like ozone itself, travel hundreds of miles by wind and impact ozone levels in Central Texas.

The Abt study hasn't been peer reviewed, a process required for publication in prestigious scientific journals. But by using EPA-developed methodology, the study appears to have avoided the sweeping dismissal often accorded reports sponsored by either industry or environmental groups. Some key industry groups, including the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, shied away from challenging the study's data, instead stressing the results were not as scary as they might appear on first blush.

The association's head, John Fainter, said power plants in Texas are among the most efficient in the nation in terms of pollution emitted per kilowatt of power generated, with the lowest average emissions rate of nitrogen oxides and soot among states that rely heavily on coal and the seventh-lowest average emissions rate of all states.

"Much time, work and money has been invested in improving emissions rates in Texas and our record of success is quite clear," he said.

The two coal-fired power plants closest to Austin are the TXU/Alcoa Inc. units near Rockdale and the Lower Colorado River Authority's Sam Seymour plant in Fayette County.

The LCRA plan burns relatively clean Western coal, as opposed to Texas lignite, so its pollution levels are relatively low compared with similar-size plants in East Texas, federal data show. In its state air permit, the LCRA has committed to spend about $135 million to install new pollution controls by 2012, and projects to complete the projects by 2010, said spokeswoman Robbie Searcy.

Under a court settlement with state and federal authorities for violations, Alcoa's Rockdale units face a deadline this year for committing to upgrade its pollution controls, or face shutdown.

Kevin Carmody writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: Editor Notes:Story Filed By Cox Newspapers For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service

c.2004 Cox News Service

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