UPHE Testimony to BLM on Federal Coal Leasing Reform

These comments were made by Susan Stewart on behalf of UPHE at the BLM hearing in Salt Lake City, May 19, 2016

Recent media coverage of the Flint, Michigan lead contaminated water scandal has created widespread awareness of a confirmed scientific fact—there is no safe amount of lead exposure. Even very small amounts of lead are toxic to fetal and infant brain development. A recent study of adolescents showed that on average, even blood lead levels formerly considered very low, were still causing a loss of intellectual capability equivalent to 9 IQ points for the average teenager. Another study of American toddlers demonstrated the average blood lead levels found would reduce their IQs by 7 points. If our society knowingly allows this to continue, then public policy has surely failed, as Flint, Michigan has taught us.

Among other many other liabilities, coal fired power plants are undeniably enormous neurotoxin factories. Coal combustion is now the primary source of lead for children in most of the United States. But mercury is orders of magnitude more toxic to the brain than lead, perhaps as much as 1000 times more toxic. It is toxic at concentrations measured in parts per trillion. And yet with little public protest, we are allowing ubiquitous mercury contamination, and the largest world wide source is coal power plants. 65% of environmental mercury comes from coal combustion.

Mercury toxicity in Utah is uniquely serious. The Great Salt Lake has the highest levels of mercury of any inland body of water in the United States, some of the highest levels discovered anywhere in the world. Utah has the only advisories in the country against eating water fowl because of mercury. 19 Utah water bodies harbor fish that are too toxic to consume because of mercury. If there was more wide spread testing, that number would be even higher. In 2009 the US Geological Survey tested fish from 300 bodies of water throughout the country and found mercury in every fish tested.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control ranks toxic heavy metals, like mercury, as the number one environmental health threat to children. That danger is starkly evident from a new study that showed 30% of American women of child bearing age have enough mercury in their body to reduce the intellect of any baby they might conceive.

This is a national emergency. If we do not radically change public policy to address it, then we have contributed to a Flint, Michigan type scandal that reaches the entire country.

These comments were made by Dr. Howie Garber at the same BLM hearing 

I’m Dr.Howie Garber, an emergency doctor living in Salt Lake. I am here representing over 400 physicians and 2000 citizen members of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. We are a non- profit group with a focus of improving air quality. Thank you for the current moratorium on coal leasing. The previous leasing program gave unfair economic advantage to an industry that greatly contributes to global warming and to air pollution. My understanding is that the coal burned from US Federal lands account for 13% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

The climate crisis is recognized in the medical community as the greatest public health crisis of our time. A hotter world is already becoming a world of more virulent infectious diseases. West Nile, Lyme disease, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, Zika and malaria are just a few of the many infectious diseases spreading far beyond their previous geography .Insect-borne diseases never before seen in the United States such as Zika are now here.. Zika causes small brains in children of pregnant women exposed to it. COAL-FIRED ELECTRICITY CONTRIBUTES THE SINGLE LARGEST AMOUNT OF GLOBAL WARMING POLLUTION OF ANY INDUSTRY. Subsidizing coal on public land allows it to be shipped to countries that are already struggling with air pollution crises. It ruins US credibility as far as our efforts to improve the climate crisis.  This is pushing the world’s climate closer to the 2°Celsius temperature increase above which there will be wide-scale irreparable damage to the earth’s natural systems.

These are some of the health care costs of burning coal. The emissions from coal plants are the major source of Sulfur Dioxide and are second only to automobiles as sources of Nitrogen Oxide and particulate matter. NOx also is precursor of ozone.
The emissions of all the coal power plants in this country have been calculated by the American Lung Association, to cause about 25,000 premature deaths every year, or an average of 30 to 50 deaths per plant per year. Coal power plant pollution is responsible for half a million asthma attacks, 16,000 episodes of chronic bronchitis, and 38,000 non-fatal heart attacks every year. This pollution increases the annual health care bill by about 170 billion dollars according to the California EPA. The American Heart Association and the American Lung Association state that air pollution on average shortens the life span of everyone one to three years.

No one escapes the consequences of air pollution: 47,000 Utah children live within 30 miles of a coal power plant. Protecting public and global health should be our top priority. Do we really want to subsidize an industry that causes such adverse health consequences and climate disruption?

Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin . It is well known that most mercury in our lakes and rivers and children comes from coal powered power plants. In early 2004, EPA scientists estimated that one in six women of childbearing age in the U.S. has levels of methylmercury in her blood that are sufficiently high to put 630,000 of the four million babies born each year at risk of learning disabilities, developmental delays, and problems with fine motor coordination, among other problems. This figure is a doubling of previous estimates based on increasing evidence that methylmercury concentrates in the umbilical cord, exposing the developing fetus to higher levels of mercury than previously understood.

The neurological deficits can be subtle and not recognizable until the child is 4-5 years old. The mother may not have any symptoms and yet her child may be born with severe deficits. I urge you to look at the 2015 USGS report of toxic mercury concentrations in Lake Powell and the Colorado River. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that this mercury originates from coal powered power plants near Price, Utah and Page, Arizona.

Thank you.