Nelson: Threat from coal-burning power plants is serious
By Gaylord Nelson
The Capital Times
More than 30 years ago, when the notion of Earth Day was
first introduced, I, along with millions of my fellow
Americans, knew we had a duty to respect and preserve
our environment. We were driven by a sense of responsibility
to future generations.
Today, science has caught up to the pace of social environmentalism.
We now know what we once strongly suspected. Years of
research and advancements in technology have provided
us with solid evidence of the importance of environmental
New data have also opened a new and very real issue for
our consideration - the correlation between environmental
stewardship and our own health. We can now see the impact
that various types of development and resulting pollution
can have on our own personal well-being.
For example, in southeastern Wisconsin, We Energies has
proposed that it expand its Oak Creek coal-fired power
plant, potentially creating the seventh-largest coal-burning
power plant in America. As Wisconsin evaluates the appropriateness
of such a plant, it must consider what modern science
can tell us about the impact of coal pollution.
Unlike 30 years ago, today we know how heavy mercury
pollution levels, like those that are expected to occur
at the proposed Oak Creek expansion, can poison our waterways
and present a serious health hazard to our citizens. Consider
the amount of mercury that will be spewed from the proposed
plant - more than 300 pounds annually. Mercury leaves
the power plant in the form of air pollution before settling
into our lakes, river and streams, essentially poisoning
the fish and anything else that lives in the waters.
Ingesting fish with mercury can cause damage to kidneys
and the nervous system. As a result, Wisconsin's DNR urges
people younger than 15, nursing mothers and women of childbearing
years not to eat more than one meal a week of panfish
and no more than one meal a month of larger fish.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that every
year in the United States, 60,000 children are born who
may suffer brain damage and have trouble in school because
their mothers ate mercury-contaminated fish. In 2001,
the proven dangers of eating too much mercury-laden fish
prompted Wisconsin to extend its fish consumption advisory
from 341 lakes to all of the more than 15,000 lakes in
The fact is, over the last three decades, we have assembled
a wealth of information about the impact of pollutants
like mercury. And yet, with all we know, some continue
to consider coal-burning power plants - one of the largest
pollution sources of mercury - as a viable option for
satisfying our energy needs.
Wisconsin's DNR has taken some steps to address the issue
and is currently proposing new regulations that would
require the state's biggest utilities to cut mercury emissions
by 40 percent in 2010 and 80 percent in 2015.
While the proposed forced reductions seem to be a step
in the right direction, it's disconcerting that We Energies
saw these limits coming and already negotiated a deal
with the state that would exempt the Oak Creek expansion
from the newly proposed mercury emission limits. This
is particularly troublesome when one considers the proposed
location of the expansion - square upon the shoreline
of Wisconsin's largest and greatest natural resource,
Of course, mercury is just one example of the many proven
health threats presented by coal-burning power plants.
Coal pollution is also a leading source of sulfur dioxide,
carbon dioxide and particulate matter, all of which can
cause serious health problems, including asthma attacks,
lung damage, cancer and premature death.
The body of scientific research related to our environment
is continually growing. Issues related to pollution, once
considered to be the concern of only radical environmentalists,
are today viewed as vitally important because of their
direct impact on such areas as our health and the economy.
Today, we know coal-burning power plants create real
health problems for people living hundreds, even thousands
of miles away from them. We know the damage that coal
pollution causes to our lakes and streams is significant
and, most often, irreversible. In the end, we now know
too much to ignore the facts.
It's now time for our social policy to catch up with
Gaylord Nelson served two terms as Wisconsin's governor
and 18 years in the U.S. Senate. The founder of Earth
Day, he currently serves as a counselor to the Wilderness