Coal bad for Kentuckians and UK

UNiversity ought to lead on health, clean air

November 14, 2011 

  • At issue | Oct. 26 Herald-Leader article, "Move away from coal, group urges UK board; savings from sustainable energy cited"

Coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of pollution in our country. They emit thousands of pounds of toxic mercury pollution each year, as well as arsenic, lead and other pollutants.

The full cycle of coal is dirty. From the mining to the burning to the disposal of coal ash — not to mention the release of CO2 emissions — coal is bad for our health. In Eastern Kentucky and throughout the Appalachian region, the coal industry levels our mountains, pollutes what were once some of the cleanest freshwater streams in the world and severely harms the health of mountain communities.

Coal power plants — and we have two boilers on the University of Kentucky campus — have serious health effects.

Kentucky ranks sixth highest nationwide in mercury pollution. Pregnant women and children stand the greatest risk from mercury exposure, especially if they consume large amounts of fish and seafood.

Exposure to mercury in utero can contribute to birth defects and neurological and developmental disorders.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least one in 12 and as many as one in six American women have enough mercury in their bodies to risk their babies' health. So mercury poisoning is not cheap — it's not cheap for our campus, for women and children or for the future of the country.

But beyond the impacts of mercury, pollution from coal-burning plants is a major cause of asthma attacks for young children. And today half of America's families live in places where the air is unsafe to breath. Kentucky deserves better.

The last step in the coal cycle is the disposal of coal-combustion waste, called coal ash. The EPA is reviewing regulation of coal ash as a toxic waste, but there now are very few protections safeguarding us from coal ash. Coal ash could be my generation's version of asbestos.

Despite the recent controversy surrounding coal ash, UK used the waste to de-ice its roads on campus during the winter. This happened even though coal ash is dangerous for children. If you live near a toxic coal-ash site, it is worse for your health than smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

Furthermore, people living within 1 mile of these toxic coal-ash sites have cancer rates 2,000 times higher than is considered acceptable by the EPA. In the United States, 1.5 million children live near coal sites. Here in Kentucky, we have 44 coal-ash disposal ponds, typically located near poorer communities.

So we desperately need a new insurance policy for the future. Nationwide, coal pollution causes $100 billion in health costs every year.

As a young person and a student, I want a better future. I want to see UK lead the way, through innovation and research, into that future, and I demand moral courage from the administration to do the right thing. I want to see UK shutter its coal-power plants now and open itself up to clean-energy solutions for our future.

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