Report: EPA model will count fewer deaths to help favor coal plants

Smog over Los Angeles, courtesy Flickr user steven-buss

The EPA is following through on plans to reduce the number of deaths it counts as attributable to air pollution, reportedly in an effort to support the Trump Administration’s plans to shore up the coal industry.

The plans were first discussed at a meeting of a key EPA air-quality standards board in the end of March. 

Now a report in the New York Times on Monday notes that the agency plans to change the modeling method it has used to count deaths associated with pollution of particulate matter emitted by burning fossil fuels—especially heavier, denser fossil fuels such as coal and diesel. 

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According to current and former EPA officials familiar with the plan who talked to the Times, the new estimates will be included in the EPA’s planned Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which is expected to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The agency is expected to release the Affordable Clean Energy Rule in June.

The Clean Power Plan would have required utilities to clean up coal-fired power plants either by adding filtration equipment and carbon capture and sequestration technology, or by replacing them with plants that burn cleaner fuel. The plan estimated that the move could eliminate 1,400 premature deaths per year. The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the Clean Power Plan in 2016.

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Those deaths were attributed to heart and lung diseases, including strokes. The new methodology would attribute no health improvements to making the air any cleaner than current law—predating the Clean Power Plan—requires.

The discrepancy stems from disagreement over what constitutes a scientific study when it comes to predictions of deaths, especially from causes such as pollution, which can take years or decades to manifest, occur along with a range of other parameters, and affects some people differently than others.

The new EPA rules would essentially throw out a wide range of studies that show correlation between increased levels of particulate air pollution and premature deaths, but don’t show direct causality.

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The electric-car movement also largely depends political efforts to reduce the same types of air pollution—based on a similar range of studies. Cleaning up power plants can also make electric cars cleaner by reducing the air pollution from making power to charge them.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA is also working to undermine California air quality standards that require automakers to build electric cars.

The coal industry has been shrinking, displacing mining and processing jobs, because burning coal is getting more expensive than natural gas, or in some cases wind and solar power. A large part of that expense comes from the need to clean up (and in many cases replace) old coal-fired power plants.

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