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Sulfur regulations on coal power plants could improve air quality, study says

Oct. 29 (UPI) — Texas residents who live downwind of a coal plant still face harmful health outcomes, according to Rice University. That’s largely because those plants remain uncleaned.

Researchers at Rice say that while air quality in Texas has improved with attention paid to ozone, the state’s residents would benefit even more from requirements on sulfur.

Cleaning up or replacing coal-fired power plants that lack sulfur pollution controls could help Texans breathe cleaner, healthier air, according to a study by researchers at Rice University published this month in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association. That’s because many of those plants remain uncleaned.

“Texas has more unscrubbed coal plants than anywhere in the country and it’s causing a substantial amount of air pollution damage and impacts on our health,” Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineer and researcher at Rice, said in a press release.

Researchers analyzed data collected from 13 Texas coal plants between 2012 and 2017, pointing to EPA statistics that say Texas plants emit double the amount of sulfur dioxide as second-ranked Missouri. While Texas emissions fall below current standards, the emissions are still at a harmful level for state residents, the researchers said.

The researchers said when Texas didn’t enforce the regional haze plan put forth by then President Barack Obama, it missed the opportunity to cut sulfur dioxide emissions at eight of the state’s worst offending plants.

By 2017, the EPA rolled back that plan altogether in favor of a cap-and-trade program.

Researchers also say the state missed an opportunity to accelerate the benefits that would have come with enforcement of the Obama-era regional haze plan, which aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

The plan would have cut emissions of sulfur dioxide, a contributor to airborne particulate matter — invisible particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter — at eight of the highest-emitting plants. Instead, in 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency replaced the plan with a cap-and-trade program.

“That doesn’t mean the plants will get worse,” Cohan said. “It just means the plants that should have been forced to clean up or close down have gotten a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Residents who live downwind of coal plants face the most detrimental health outcomes, according to researchers.

“Particulate matter is the deadliest of all air pollutants, and it’s not just causing deaths in the way that you might think,” Cohan said. “It’s not only by respiratory diseases, but it’s also causing increases in rates of heart attacks and strokes. These particles are small enough to pass through the alveoli and enter the bloodstream. That lets them cause damage on all aspects of our bodily systems.

The team wrote that as coal power gets more expensive, more coal plants will close, forcing companies to turn to cheaper alternatives like natural gas, wind and solar energy. Cohan said that over time, more plants will also close once enforcement tightens up.

“The key message of our paper,” Cohan said, “is that delay has very real costs for us in Texas.”

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