Lives for Jobs?

Voting 17-5 this morning, a House of Delegates committee killed legislation that would have required the owners of 15 coal fired power plants in Virginia to drastically reduce emissions. EPA studies indicate that power plant emissions are responsible for 1000 deaths, 140,000 lost work days and 23,700 asthma attacks annually in Virginia, according to reports by the Associated Press. The power companies in Virginia are already facing EPA emissions reductions not as stringent as those proposed by Delegate Jack Reid (R-Henrico). Tommy Hudson, president of the Virginia Coal Association, said passage of Reid’s bill would put 6.5 million tons of coal and 1000 Virginia jobs at risk, resulting in devastating economic consequences for southwest Virginia.


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  1. That is sad and short-sighted.

    But hopefully people will discover more clean, renewable energy to replace coal altogether. The crux of the energy problem (and thus the pollution problem) is that distributed, micropower technology using renewables is severely hampered and harrassed in Virginia by Dominion lobbyists and the SCC. These alternatives are kept from competing in the marketplace.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Barnie, I have previously said that I believe the 1,000 deaths from power plant emissions number is unsupportable. By the same token, the coal companies’ 1,000 jobs at risk is also unsupportable. Just as particles from all kinds of nasty things besides plant emissions are in our air, numerous factors besides the capital cost of a coal scrubber go into the job security of someone in the coal industry.

    It’s amazing how the two numbers were exactly the same and how you’ve turned that into lives being traded for jobs, one for one. It sure makes those committee members look evil.

    You would know better than me why legislators vote as they do–power plant campaign contributions?–but there is one key difference in this one for one deal. No one will be able to bring an autopsy report into the General Assembly in two years that says Mary Jones died from emission plant inhalation. A laid-off coal worker could appear in person and blame environmental regulation cost for his plight.

    I, of course, would rather believe that it was the incremental improvements in Reid’s bill weren’t worth the additional costs beyond compliance with what the Feds have already mandated.

  3. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Will, I gave you a pass on this the other day. Now I will take it up.

    You maintain that there is not one documented death from power plant emissions, and thus there is no direct, inconrovertible causal linkage. But if there were, you maintain that one would be too many.

    Can you point to a specific individual who died specifically from smoking cigarettes–not from cancer, not from emphysema, not from hardening of the arteries, not from congestive heart failure–but from smoking cigarettes?

    Do you believe that people die from smoking cigarettes? If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then I will disengage. If the answer to that is ‘yes,’then upon what data do you base this belief? Is it fair to say that if you believe cigarette smoke causes death, then you must, if you’re intellectually honest, believe that breathing coal smoke also causes death, in that it manifests itself in the same cancer, emsphysema, hardening of the arteries, congestive heart failure and other pulmonary markers associated with the intake of smoke particles into your lungs? Is that fair?

    Or is it your posititon that breathing tobacco smoke is different than breathing coal smoke, although the poisons found in the two are, in many instances, identical?

    If you do, in fact, agree that long-term intake of coal smoke causes death, when is the ‘one-is-too-many’ threshold met?

    If you decide that breathing coal smoke does cause death–even one death–what, to your mind, is cost in dollars that mitgigates that death, that makes it an acceptable trade-off?

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Barnie, there’s a fallacy that dooms your little exercise in my view. Hopefully. it might illuminate for you why I think the way I do.

    A cigarette is a manufactured product. Every one is alike. A smoker, day after day, receives the same amount of carcinogens from each cigarette. We can calculate, with some precision, how much in carcinogens the smoker has inhaled over a set period.

    We know, however, that some people smoke until they die at a ripe old age, while others die prematurely of illnesses that science has linked to smoking. A small number of people die of illnesses linked to smoking even if they didn’t smoke or weren’t exposed to second hand smoke.

    A smokestack releases its smoke, laced with particulates and carcinogens, into the vast atmosphere. These are spread far and wide. There may be differences at the smokestack from day to day depending on the plant’s capacity level or differences within the coal. There are differences from day to day in locations downwind, even differences on what locations are downwind on a particular day. Finally, there are differences among the people from day to day. Sometimes they are outside on a day when the air might not be particularly clean; other days they are outside when the air is clean. A lot of time they are indoors, where the air quality can vary greatly due to factors well beyond what the outside air might be like.

    We know that many people who live in areas regularly downwind of these plants live to a ripe old age while others die prematurely of respitory illnesses. We also know the same is true for people who live in places not touched by coal burning plants.

    I love science, but I just don’t believe that we can accurately isolate, among all the variables, how many deaths are “caused” by a coal-fired plant.

    I’m easy to get along with. Say that coal-fired plants without the latest technology contribute to the premature death of people who are at-risk. Just don’t say that the plants “cause” 1,000 deaths.

    I note you didn’t venture a guess on why the bill failed and what that might say about the members who voted it down. NPR reported the vote was 18-4; I haven’t looked to see what the right count was, not that it matters.

    I thought I might get some credit for disputing industry’s job figures, too, but I guess you were too busy setting up this Socratic riddle for me. It’s past my bedtime.

  5. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Good morning, Will. I feel so much better now, knowing that these power plants will only contribute to my death prematurely, rather than actually cause it. Isn’t life swell? You know, there is an upside to all of this. A friend of mine at Duke, an economics professor, got quite a bit of traction with a paper he did with a colleague on the national benefits of smoking. It’s not what you might think at first–not the product sales, not the jobs, none of that. The biggest ‘positive’ is that it kills people early and takes them out of the retirement benefits stream–particularly long term health care. So, in retrospect, I suppose these smokestacks are our friends. If we keep them long enough, they’ll bring the Social Security Trust Fund back into balance!

  6. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    PS: Will, I spoke with Reid’s aide and she said the bill went down 17-5, with only Democrats voting for it. It failed for several reasons, I’d say, chief among them the arguments Dominion Resources put up–they are trying, they’re doing better, they’re meeting the EPA guidelines (and they are), and so on. Hey, they make a case. They always do. This bill was, literally, a billion dollar issue for them. They pulled out all the stops. Eva Teig-Hardy, the VP at Dominion responsible for all government relations, communications, etc., went on at great length with me about this one–particularly after I supported the bill in a column. She is a close personal friend of mine, and one of the classiest people I know, and we went tooth and claw on this one. Ditto, Steve Haner, Vice Poobah at the Virginia Chamber. By the way, Eva is married to Michael Hardy at the Times Dispatch. He married up!

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Barnie, You put a lot of stock in those EPA numbers asserting that power plant emissions are responsible for 1,000 deaths, 140,000 lost work days, etc. Despite the seeming precision of the numbers, those can be guesstimates at best. If we looked at the fine print of the EPA report, I suspect we’d find all sorts of caveats regarding assumptions made, margins for error, standard deviations and such. I’m highly suspicious about the way policy advocates use and mis-use numbers. They always slant the methodology and the numbers to yield results favorable to themselves.

    Of course that applies not only to the bureaucrats in the EPA, it probably applies to coal industry lobbyists claiming that 1,000 jobs are at risk….

  8. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Jim, you’re right. All of these numbers are two ’round’, too ‘clean.’ But I think you’d agree that there must be a correct number somewhere. I guess the thing that winds me up most about this running discussion is this: we, some of us, seem to accept some number as acceptable, as the price of doing business, so to speak. And it is just a matter of money. We can go to zero emissions if we’re willing to pay for it. We accept it because it is an impersonal abstract to us. If we said, “Okay, here is Frank. Tomorrow we’re going to kill Frank with our emissions because, well, it’s Frank’s turn,” there would be a huge uproar of rage and protest. We wouldn’t tolerate that for a second. Well, the thing is, tomorrow we will kill a ‘Frank’ somewhere. We just don’t know him and, thankfully, are not forced to acknowledge him, or, for that matter, to even visualize him. And so that’s acceptable. And so we will tolerate it, because, hey, we’re meeting existing EPA guidelines.

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