Interactive Map Shows Health Impacts of Energy and Emissions from Coal

Within the last year, energy generation and associated emissions from the Hatfield Ferry Coal Plant in Greene, Pennsylvania contributed to an estimated eighty nine deaths in the surrounding area. Fine particle pollution from the plant caused around 140 heart attacks, and ten times that number of asthma attacks. Eighteen deaths in Greene County were partly attributed to coal plant pollution, while in the relatively “safe” Pennsylvania county of Centre, only eight coal-related deaths occurred.

Meanwhile in the region surrounding Ohio’s Clermont County, the Walter C. Beckjord Coal Plant had an even more deadly impact. Pollution from this plant is estimated to have led to 140 deaths, 220 heart attacks, and 2,300 asthma attacks. All across the highly coal-dependent United States—but particularly in the Great Lakes and Appalachian regions—the statistics show a similar trend: every year burning coal contributes to hundreds of deaths and many thousands of preventable illnesses. And though the health impacts of coal plants have been well known for decades, anyone with access to the Internet can now access information about exactly what health risks the coal industry poses in their US state and county. This data is now provided in an interactive web map crated by the Clean Air Task Force.

Incorporating information from Google Earth, the map shows every US state except Alaska and Hawaii, and provides specific data for most counties about the estimated number of deaths and illnesses attributable in part to pollution from coal plants. After clicking on a state of interest, viewers can also zero in on specific coal plants to see how many health problems each plant creates; each plant is responsible not only for carbon emissions, but for toxic pollutants ranging from ground-level ozone to mercury. The largest concentrations are clearly in the Great Lakes and Appalachian regions—unsurprising, considering those are areas where a disproportionate number of the nation’s coal plants are located close to very dense human populations.

Yet no state is completely safe from the health damages wrought by coal-generated energy and emissions. Even in Oregon, far to the west of the majority of US coal plants, the annual mortality is recorded at six coal-related deaths each year. Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, which Portland General Electric is now pushing to keep open for another ten years or longer, is credited with causing thirteen asthma attacks every year. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, Vermont is one of very few states with no coal plants located within its boundaries. But thanks to its proximity to plants in other states, Vermont still suffers from thirty-nine coal related deaths per year.

Those possessing at least a small morbid fascination with the dangers of dirty energy could spend hours perusing this new online tool, and learning about the human toll from coal plants across the US. Yet there are also very practical implications to the data: it is now easier than ever for those working toward the clean energy economy to point out the true costs of our dependence on fossil fuels. Though every energy source comes with some inherent dangers and risks, it’s doubtful any can compete with the soup of toxic compounds released from the smokestack of a coal plant. When activists can pin a specific number of deaths and illnesses on a particular plant, the case for replacing it becomes that much stronger. In such a way can online tools and innovation advance the cause of a cleaner, healthier energy and emissions policy.

Photo credit: Paul Jerry

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.