This article originally appeared on Grist.
Over the past 15 years, coal power has been in steep decline across the United States, reducing use by more than 50 percent. The rise of cheaper natural gas and renewable energy combined with environmental regulations has led to the closure of hundreds of stations across the country. Between 2010 and 2021, 36 percent of the country’s coal plants went offline. since then another 25 percent have closed or committed to retire by 2030.
But even as coal declines, it still holds a deadly grip on communities across the country, according to a new report from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. The coal sector is responsible for 3,800 premature deaths a year due to fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, pollution from smog.
“We know that coal plants remain one of the biggest polluters in the United States,” said Holly Bender, senior director of energy campaigns with the Sierra Club. “What the (government) data didn’t show was who was most affected by each of these plants.”
Coal plants release heavier particles and localized pollution that can have acute effects within a 30- to 50-mile radius, but they also release fine particles that are blown hundreds of miles away by wind from tall smokestacks. The report looked at these particles specifically, finding that they had far-reaching effects, causing premature death in states that don’t even border another state with a plant.
For example, the highest number of deaths due to coal plant pollution occurred in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania, and Cook County, Illinois, with 63 and 61 deaths per year, respectively. However, Cook Country is hundreds of miles away from the nearest power plant. The Labadie plant, Cook County’s biggest polluter, owned by US energy company Ameren, is more than 300 miles away in rural Missouri. For the average coal plant, only 4 percent of premature deaths occurred in the same county as the facility, and only 18 percent occurred in the same state, underscoring the cross-regional nature of the coal soot problem.
Particulate pollution has a well-documented and disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income communities. The report notes how these disparities have grown over time. While coal overall is the only source of pollution that affects white Americans more than average, Daniel Prull, the report’s author, noted that the effects vary from plant to plant. Many coal plants examined in the study had disproportionate impacts on communities of color, depending on where they were located.
More than 50 percent of the mortality caused by carbon soot can be traced to 17 plants, according to the report. The parent company with the most deaths was Tennessee Valley Authority, which has four plants and is owned by the US government. Many of the other super-polluters, such as PPL, Berkshire Hathaway, and Ameren, were investor-owned utilities—which together accounted for 40 percent of these premature deaths from carbon. “This is not just a problem that has been relegated to one part of the industry,” Bender said, adding that the parent companies that did the most damage were also those that failed to make commitments to retire coal plants and transition to clean energy. .
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to regulate particulate pollution. Last month it published a draft proposal to do so under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. While the draft standard would lower the exposure limit, the new Sierra Club report notes that it does not specifically address controlling emissions from coal-fired power plants, more than half of which lack modern pollution control technology.
Coal continues to become increasingly uneconomical, Bender said, but it’s important to make sure the energy sector doesn’t just move from one fossil fuel to another. “Natural gas couldn’t be further from a climate solution,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are really on track to achieve those emissions reductions that are necessary to address the climate crisis and the very real pollution burdens that are being faced across the country.”
This article originally appeared on Grist. Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at Grist.org.