Just the Facts

The debate continues over the need for — and health risks of — coal-fired power plants.

Coal-laden railway cars

IN HER 2009 State of the State address, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced an "aggressive goal" for Michigan's energy policy — a 45 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 2020. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels provided 70.6 percent of energy generated in Michigan in 2006 (the most recent data available), with coal providing 60.2 percent of the total. Because other fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas provide a much smaller amount of energy, the majority of this reduction would have to occur in Michigan's coal-fired energy industry. Gov. Granholm addressed this by calling on the Department of Environmental Quality to assess the need for more energy and consider renewable alternatives when reviewing proposed new coal plants' air quality permits.

Michigan leads the country in the number of proposed coal-fired plants, with eight.

Gov. Granholm's directive faces an uncertain future. Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion declaring it a violation of the separation of powers guaranteed in the state Constitution, but new coal plants still face an uphill battle.

On Jan. 6, the Detroit Free Press published an editorial by two researchers declaring that new coal plants pose a dire threat to the health and safety of Michiganders. The University of Michigan's Howard Hu and Michigan State's Kenneth Rosenman, both medical doctors, highlighted the effects of mercury, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, ozone and other pollutants associated with coal plants. 

Though the authors correctly describe the results of extensive exposure to these compounds, they suggest that the worst possible scenarios are inevitable consequences of new coal plant construction in Michigan. Nitrogen dioxide, they point out, is a lung irritant that contributes to ozone formation. However, they fail to mention that the leading source of nitrogen dioxide in the state is not coal combustion, but vehicle emissions, and that innovations in both fields have resulted in a downward trend. In addition, the Department of Environmental Quality's monitoring of nitrogen dioxide indicates that concentrations of the pollutant in Michigan are already well below national guidelines of 0.5 parts per million. Since 1991, the state has never recorded a concentration of nitrogen dioxide above 0.2 ppm. Sulfur dioxide is also found in concentrations less than one-third of federal air quality standards, and mercury and lead contamination is on the decline.