Monday, August 25, 2008

Clean Air Arkansas meets Wednesdays to protect state from coal-fired plants

CROSS CURRENTS : All fired up
Fran Alexander
Posted on Monday, August 25, 2008
There’s a hard race being run here in Arkansas — and it will take Olympian skill for the environment to win this one. A documentary film narrated by Robert Redford, “ Fighting Goliath, ” was shown at the library earlier this month. It chronicled how citizens, mayors, ranchers, environmental groups, CEOs, lawyers, etc. came together in Texas to oppose the construction of 18 coal-burning utility plants planned for their state.

Some of the organizers of Public Citizen, the activist group in Texas heading up this fight, were here to share their insight and materials as well as participate on a panel with a couple of Arkansawyers, Art Hobson and Robert McAfee, who serve on Gov. Beebe’s Commission on Global Warming. Every panelist made it clear that, like Texas, Arkansas is also in a race for its air, that substance we can live without for about three to six minutes. Most of us seem to think we can survive dirty air, betting our luck against our age, health and the duration of the worst pollution to which we are exposed. However, our bodies are taking notes and tabulating the bill with every breath we take.

The American Lung Association — with their mission of preventing lung disease and promoting lung health — reports in its “ State of the Air 2008 ” that 42 percent of U. S. citizens live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution. That’s 125 million of us. They cite that, “ Approximately 2. 2 million children and over 5. 5 million adults with asthma live in parts of the United States with very high levels of ozone” and “ over 10. 2 million adults age 65 and over and nearly 24 million children age 18 and under live in counties with unhealthful ozone levels. ” The organization’s numbers include those suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema as well as millions of people with diabetes or some type of cardiovascular disease. These health costs are what environmentalists are talking about when we say that our health subsidizes dirty business. Our health is not included in business expenditure calculations. We pay that bottom line, and sometimes it costs us our lives.

The lung association’s report stresses that the Clean Air Act is suffering from continued weakening of protections and that, “ Old, coal-fired power plants are among the biggest industrial contributors to unhealthful air, especially particle pollution in the eastern United States. The toll of death, disease and environmental destruction caused by coal-fired power plant pollution continues to mount. ”

One would think politicians would listen to these strong words from the oldest volunteer health organization in the country (founded in 1904 ) that has fought the causes and helped find the cures for tuberculosis and other lung diseases. Ah yes, one would think.

One would also think that carbon dioxide, the planet’s overabundance of which is believed by hundreds of scientists to be one of the causes of global warming, would be classified as an air contaminant. But alas, that would mean it would have to be regulated and limits set, and nosy inspectors would be measuring smokestack emissions. This thought is very disturbing to coal burning utility companies, because they see such scrutiny and control as a cost that might make them less competitive to energy producers using wind or sun, for example.

Right now in Arkansas, the proposed Turk plant in Hempstead County, near Texarkana and Hope, has been passed by our Public Service Commission, but the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has not issued an air permit yet. That permit seems to be teetering on the brink of a decision by Gov. Mike Beebe, a decision as serious as an execution. Some of us have been told that he is waiting for his Global Warming Commission (www. arclimatechange. us ) report. Our job as citizens is to tell the governor and his commission, which is made up of a diverse group of represented interests, that we do not need nor want another coal-burning plant in our state. Beebe’s address is: State Capital, Room 250, Little Rock, AR 72201. Or you can e-mail him.

Our job is also to support each other in finding ways to bridge the energy chasm between now and tomorrow. Because alternative energy research, development and incentives have been and continue to be suppressed by President Bush, by Congress and by the strong-armed oil and coal rulers of energy markets, we are easily sold a bill of goods that we have no energy choices but their dinosaurs. Old technologies want us to keep on burning their dirty old fuels for a long, long time.

Michael Dworkin in the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility report “ Don’t Get Burned” writes, “ For large central-station coal-fired power plants, financing depends on long-term yields; thus they depend on net positive cash flow, not for years, but for decades. Operating costs and capital costs can destroy projected margins if the future differs from the past. ”

Ironically, therefore, burning coal will obliterate being able to bridge to future technologies as long as utilities have to pay off their billion-dollar power plants, like Hempstead. These industries’ job is to sell us on the idea that without them our economies will collapse when the opposite might be more the reality. They hold us hostage with the fear that if we try to leap the chasm to a clean future, we will find no alternate side to land on. Some of us do not buy their story, especially keeping in mind that there is another huge plant planned just down the road from us near Poteau, Okla., another battle in our face.

Since the film was shown (google “ Fighting Goliath ” for a preview ), some of us have formed “ Clean Air Arkansas” and hope to be one of several chapters across the state to confront the permitting of these coal-burning plants. In Fayetteville, we are meeting at 7 p. m. Wednesday nights on the lower floor of the United Campus Ministry building at 902 W. Maple St. (corners with Storer Street ), and we need you.

On Sept. 9, the Commission on Global Warming will meet again in Little Rock at the Capitol, and every Arkie that can drive, walk or crawl needs to go tell them you want to breathe clean air. Speaking there is your right as a citizen of this state, or just filling a chair with your body carries weight !

Coal is called the cheap energy fuel because our land, our plants, our animals, our water, our air and our lungs pay the overhead. To paraphrase dear old Smokey the Bear, “ Only YOU can stop coal fires. ” Please take a deep breath and come help.

Fran Alexander is a local resident and an active environmentalist.

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