Delaware Coal Plant Responsible for Cancer Cluster

January 5, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

Burning coal for electricity isn’t just a major contributor to climate change, it can also be deadly to public health.  That’s the take-home message from the State of Delaware’s recent discovery that pollution from the Indian River coal plant in the city of Millsboro, is contributing to a cancer cluster in the surrounding area.  Residents of the Delaware communities of Millsboro, Frankford, Dagsboro, Georgetown, Selbyville, and Ocean View are 17% more likely to have cancer than the average for the entire US, a Delaware Division of Public Health study finds. 

State officials first began examining whether the Indian River plant was contributing to higher cancer rates after years of pressure from residents of the Millsboro area, who believe their health is being affected by the power plant.  Burning coal produces a large number of toxic compounds that contribute to cancer, including mercury, lead, nickel, hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid, and other chemicals.  Older coal plants are especially likely to be emitting unsafe levels of pollutants, and the Indian River plant is one of the dirtiest power plants in Delaware. 

However other communities across the US are similarly feeling the effects of coal pollution.  The identification of a cancer cluster around the Indian River plant is just one more indicator of growing public awareness that burning coal threatens public health.  According to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), coal pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and cancer.  In order to improve public health, PSR recommends slashing US dependence on coal for fuel, ramping up investments in renewable energy, and passing national climate legislation while enforcing the existing clean air act to curb pollution from power plants.

Coal’s impact on health in turn affects the economy.  A report sponsored by the Clean Air Council, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and others shows the nation’s dirtiest coal plants, which haven’t yet installed the same pollution controls required on newer plants, cost businesses around $6 billion annually by negatively impacting worker health.  Lost work days, lower productivity, and higher insurance costs all contribute to economic loses that could be avoided if workers were healthier. 

The same report concludes a US Environmental Protection Agency proposal to more strictly regulate coal pollution crossing state boundaries will have economic and health benefits that far outweigh the costs.  This proposed Transport Rule would require coal plants in thirty-one states to install more effective pollution controls that protect public health.  It’s one of several EPA proposals to more strictly limit pollution from coal plants and other sources.  Since EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson took office in 2009, the agency has been updating pollution regulations the rules on the books consistent with the latest health science—something the EPA is required to do periodically under the Clean Air Act.

If the EPA is allowed to move forward with the Transport Rule and new limits on mercury, toxic coal ash, and other coal pollutants, the benefits for public health would be significant.  The new rules would protect communities in many states from the kind of health risks found in the Millsboro area cancer cluster.  Yet some members of Congress—mostly Republicans but also some Democrats—argue the new regulations should not be allowed to move forward.  Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan), incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says his party will work to prevent new environmental and health regulations taking effect.  Upton says the EPA rules would unnecessarily harm jobs in the coal industry.

With a new Republican majority taking office in the House of Representatives this month, the fight over whether energy companies should be required to reduce pollution from coal plants is likely to be long and heated.  It also has implications for the health of communities all over the United States.  This includes residents of Delaware’s Millsboro area, where coal pollution has already contributed to cancer and other health problems for years.

Photo credit: Darren Blackburn

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