Why are coal-fired power plants a concern?
Coal is the largest energy source for generating electricity at U.S. power plants. There are approximately 1,200 coal-fired generators at 450 facilities in the United States. They generate about 44.6 percent of the country's electricity.
There are approximately 125 coal-fired power facilities in the Southwest. Texas generates more electricity from coal-fired power plants than any other state in the country.
Coal-fired power plants are among the country's greatest sources of pollution. They are the biggest industrial emitters of mercury and arsenic into the air. They emit 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as posing a threat to human health and the environment.
Coal-fired power plants also emit cadmium, chromium, dioxins, formaldehyde, furans, lead, nickel, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. They emit volatile organic compounds, including benzene, toluene, and xylene. Emissions include acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride. Small amounts of radioactive materials such as radium, thorium, and uranium are also emitted.
Burning coal in power plants emits sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with precipitation in the atmosphere to form acid rain. Burning coal also produces particulate matter.
Coal-fired and oil-fired power plants are also called fossil-fueled power plants. Oil-fired power plants generate only 1 percent of the country's electricity.
About 60 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 50 percent of mercury emissions, and 13 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions come from fossil-fueled power plants. Coal- and oil-fired power plants also account for about 60 percent of arsenic emissions, 30 percent of nickel emissions, and 20 percent of chromium emissions.
Coal-fired power plants account for 81 percent of the electric power industry's greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming and climate change. The most significant greenhouse gas emitted by coal-fired power plants is carbon dioxide. They also emit smaller amounts of methane and nitrous oxide.
The hazardous air emissions from coal-fired power plants cause serious human health impacts. Arsenic, benzene, cadmium, chromium compounds, dioxins, formaldehyde, and nickel are listed as carcinogens in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program. Furans, lead, and toluene are listed as reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens.
Hazardous air pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants can cause a wide range of health effects, including heart and lung diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to these pollutants can damage the brain, eyes, skin, and breathing passages. It can affect the kidneys, lungs, and nervous and respiratory systems. Exposure can also affect learning, memory, and behavior.
Mercury pollutes lakes, streams, and rivers, and accumulates in fish. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain mercury. People who eat large amounts of fish from mercury-contaminated lakes and rivers, including Native Americans, are at the greatest risk of exposure to mercury.
The EPA and Food and Drug Administration issue fish advisories to recommend that people limit or avoid eating certain kinds or amounts of fish. Exposure to mercury is a particular concern for women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children. Fish advisories have been issued in every state.
People who live near coal-fired power plants have the greatest health risks from power plant pollution. Many pollutants such as metals and dioxins may attach to fine particles and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Coal-fired power plants affecting Navajo tribal lands include: the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico and the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Available and Emerging Technologies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Coal-Fired Electric Generating Units (Environmental Protection Agency) (PDF — 805.51 KB)
Emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal-Fired Power Plants (American Lung Association) (PDF — 2.18 MB)
EPA’s Regulation of Coal-Fired Power (Congressional Research Service) (PDF — 773.67 KB)
Navajo Coal and Air Quality in Shiprock, New Mexico (US Geological Survey) (PDF — 797.43 KB)
Reducing Toxic Pollution from Power Plants (Environmental Protection Agency) (PDF — 796.98 KB)
Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants (American Lung Association) (PDF — 1.08 MB)
Chemicals in Coal-Fired Power Plants
Are these chemicals in MY community?
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Last Updated: March 5, 2013