Kentucky Group Studies Health Effects of Aging TVA Coal Plant

Guest Blog | November 20, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
Construction of TVA's Shawnee coal plant began in the 1950s.

This guest blog was written by Deborah Payne, MPH, Health Coordinator at the Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). For more detail on KEF’s Shawnee Health Impacts Assessment, please register and attend a free webinar on November 20, 2014 at 11am ET. Download the full report here.

In 1957, the price of gas was just 24 cents a gallon, Elvis Presley purchased a mansion in Memphis and called it Graceland, and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2, the first rocket ship to carry an animal into space. It was in that same year that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finished construction on the Shawnee Fossil Plant, a coal-fired facility in western Kentucky built to provide energy to the United States Energy Corporation’s (USEC) uranium enrichment plant. Now, almost 56 years later, one year after the closure of the USEC plant and within the context of a rapidly changing energy market, TVA must decide what to do with two of its nine remaining units. Driven by a consent decree with EPA and environmental groups, the plant must either retrofit the units to meet new air quality standards or retire these units.

Generally, decision-making around power plants is impacted by many factors. New environmental policies, like stricter regulations for air, water and waste, are reducing the viability of older coal plants. At the same time, energy portfolios are rapidly shifting away from coal to other generation resources such as natural gas, renewable energy, and investments in energy efficiency. Most utility decisions are driven by economics and policies, while little emphasis is placed on one of the most basic impacts on the community: public health.

In order to determine the public health impacts of operating or retiring an older coal plant, KEF conducted a Health Impacts Assessment (HIA) around TVA’s Shawnee plant. The Shawnee HIA identifies the myriad of public health impacts that would arise if TVA upgrades Shawnee with modern pollution controls or if TVA retires the entire Shawnee coal plant. These impacts range from physical health impacts to economic impacts that affect a community’s access to health care and jobs that provide health insurance. Industrial jobs have been a mainstay in western Kentucky and retiring Shawnee could potentially put a strain on area workers who have depended on the work for maintaining income for food and housing. At the same time, coal power plant emissions have contributed to the region’s poor air and water quality, potentially affecting increased rates of asthma and cardiac health concerns, and compromising water resources that threaten public health and aquatic ecosystems. Retrofitting the plant would extend the life of the aging facility but the question continues to remain: at what expense?

HIAs can be useful for many different areas of decision-making. As Paducah and McCracken County residents and leaders consider next steps around jobs and industry, the HIA will be an important tool for helping them think about the future. HIAs are a great way to use health data in a real life setting—including issues such as economics, jobs, education and healthcare—in a manner that ensures public health is considered in policy development. The HIA process, which strongly relied on the participation and leadership of community members, is intended to support TVA as well as local leaders make health-informed choices when it comes to the future of their power plants. As for shifts in industrial options, community and economic development leaders can work to ensure that new industries invited into the area, follow standard health and safety guidelines and provide sufficient wages for the workers. Making health a priority is good for business and good for the community.

TVA is accepting comments and suggestions from the public as it works to shape its 20 year energy plan, known as the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), as well as for the specific decision around retrofit or retirement scenarios of two units at the plant.  TVA is scheduled to release a draft IRP in the first part of 2015. They also expect to release a draft environmental assessment for public comment in mid-December on the decisions for Shawnee Units 1 and 4. Please stay tuned to learn more about how you can weigh in on the future of the Shawnee coal plant and TVA’s energy future!

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