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Coal-fired power plants kill

October 23, 2011 ·  By Rene Q. Bas Editor In Chief, The Manila Times

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Villagers from the town of Maasin, in Sarangani province in Mindanao in the southern Philippines on the grounds of a local elementary school. The commnunity was joined by Greenpeace volunteers and crew from the visiting Greenpeace flagship Raibow Warrior. AFP Photo

Villagers from the town of Maasin, in Sarangani province in Mindanao in the southern Philippines on the grounds of a local elementary school. The community was joined by Greenpeace volunteers and crew from the visiting Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior. AFP Photo

MORE and more neutral voices that are not those of anti-business leftists or those of environmental advocacy militants have joined the call for the government to reverse the policy on coal-fired power plants.

It will not be an easy about-face to maneuver.

Coal-fired electricity generating stations are the largest sources of power in our country. The Department of Energy’s latest “Power Situationer”—which covers 2010— shows that coal-fired power plants (let’s use the abbreviation CFPPs) have the most both of installed and dependable capacity.

The 24 CFPPs operating in 2010 are the largest producers of electricity. The 24 include two Coal-thermal plants in Mindanao. They account for 29.75 percent of our country’s total installed generating capacity and 30.53 percent of total dependable capacity.

Not quite a close second to coal are hydro-electric plants accounting for 20.78 percent of installed and 21.73 percent of dependable capacity. Next are diesel-fired plants accounting for 19.52 percent of installed and 17.90 percent of dependable capacity, then geothermal plants accounting for 12.00 percent of installed and 9.71 percent of dependable capacity.

More coal pants are being built and, with government approval, are scheduled to be built. The latest to be opened is the CFPP plant in Iloilo City (it’s not counted among the 24 mentioned above), which President Benigno Aquino 3 rd himself inaugurated on April Fool’s Day 2011.

The main reason the environmentalists are attracting more adherents to their “No to coal!” campaign is the health hazards CFPPs pose to human beings, animals (including fishes and birds), more assuredly damaging within a 30-kilometer radius of a CFPP but also sure to deliver toxins and poison for hundreds and even thousands of kms more.

Those working in and living near CFPPs develop black lungs and cancers.

The hazardous materials from CFPPs don’t only travel in the atmosphere. They also enter our waterways and could even pollute the aquifers and therefore our groundwater. When they pollute the waterways and go to the sea they are imbibed by freshwater and sea fishes which when we eat them make us carriers and magnifying vehicles for these poisons (especially mercury).

The materials that are in the atmosphere range in size from minute grains to microscopic. They lodge in our bodies and trigger cancers and other illnesses.

The harmful material does not quickly go away. Fresh emissions today can continue to do their destructive work up to the time of our grandchildren.

Alyansa Tigil Mina’s network of up to a hundred environmentalist groups (which includes the mighty and respected Haribon Foundation), the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, local governments and local people organizations are calling on the government to stop issuing new clearances and permits to companies applying to open CFPPs.

Then, realizing how the sudden closure of operational CFPPs will drastically impact on the local and national economies, they wish the government and the CFPP owners to establish a plan to close down and switch to safer and more eco-friendly and non-health hazardous systems of power generation.

The preferred system is, of course, renewable energy power generation technology technology.
The most recently opened CFPPs boast having the state of the art environment and human-health friendly devices.

But the Wold Health Organization, and in the United States, the Centers for Diseases Control, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Earth Policy Institute and similar government and privately funded institutions continue to warn the public that that even the reputedly most effective pollution prevention and control machines and mechanisms don’t completely prevent toxins, methylmercury and minute particulates from leaching out to the atmosphere and to the ground and waterways and to the sea.

Radiation too
Studies show that CFPPs emit as much or even more radiation than nuclear power plants.
Last May 23, using International Day of Action for Women’s Health as her launching pad, Gabriela partylist Congresswoman, who one must admit is left-of-center and militantly pro-environment, gave a privileged speech at the House of Representatives and effectively summarize the reasons we Filipinos must reject coal-fired power plants.

Her speech is titled “Coal-Fired Power Plants: Scourge to Filipino Women.”

* * *

SHE rose on a question of personal and collective privilege “to warn our country as well as this august chamber that a scourge is descending upon Filipino women: the scourge of coal-fired power plants!

Her speech:
As I speak here today, Mr. Speaker, the boilers of 10 existing coal-fired power plants in the country are in full blast. The latest of these ten, the 164-megawatt coal-fired power plant located in the heart of Iloilo City, was inaugurated by no less than President Aquino last April 1, 2011. To these existing coal power plants, the Department of Energy, in line with the government’s 20-year Philippine Energy Development Program (PEDP) for addressing our “energy deficit” and attaining in the long term the “energy security” for the country, has planned to “accelerate the exploration and development of oil, gas and coal resources.” Toward such end, it is placing on its pipeline the construction of additional coal-fired power plants in Isabela, Zambales, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, General Santos, Sultan Kudarat, and Davao City.

In his speech inaugurating the Iloilo City coal-fired power plant, President Aquino praised energy generation from coal as “reliable, secure, and reasonably-priced”. For this representation, Mr. Speaker, those words were deafening in the lack of awareness on the part of the highest official of this land on the ill effects of coal on our society, our environment and our people, especially on our women and children. At the same time, they resounded with the cavalier attitude of a government that places unmerited confidence in coal energy development as an approach to addressing our “energy deficit”. Such confidence is a cause for worry, especially since some DoE officials, in promoting coal energy, would even go to the extent of mouthing the canard that “coal is clean.”

To the women of this country, coal is not clean. Contrary to the claim of DoE officials and coal sector lobby groups, coal is dirty, verily a toxic industry. It is a major health hazard. And among existing kinds of energy, it is the biggest killer of humanity. The numerous pollutants and trace elements, such as lead, nickel, mercury, chromium and arsenic, formed and released from the process of extracting and transforming coal into combustible forms of energy have been known to cause diseases that can lead to premature deaths.

Among these diseases are cancer, dysfunction of respiratory organ, respiratory obstruction and infection, and severe asthma attacks. Coal pollutants and trace elements can also affect human organs and systems other than the lung, such as the central nervous systems, the heart, blood, liver and kidneys.

In fact, no less than the World Health Organization (in its compilation of studies tracking human deaths and pollution per energy sector) has attributed the death of 1 million people a year to air pollutions from coal. This fact has been confirmed in many other independent studies that it has led experts and keen observers to conclude that “coal is deadlier than nuclear energy” in terms of human death toll. Of course, the WHO figures do not include deaths due to mining disasters like roof falls and explosions in underground coal mining.

Among fossil fuels, coal is the most carbon-intensive. According to the study of the United Nations Environment Program, coal emits “around 1.7 times as much carbon per unit of energy when burned as natural gas and 1.25 times as much as oil”, making it the most hazardous fossil fuel. In countries that extensively rely on coal energy, such as the United States, it contributes 93 per cent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 88 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and 99 per cent of mercury emissions. It is, therefore, the top contributor to the formation of acid rain that causes atmospheric pollution as well as to the production of greenhouse gases that have depleted our ozone layer, causing climatic change in our era.

Apart from this, Mr. Speaker, studies after studies have shown that coal mining causes environmental contamination, degradation and destruction. Coal mining, from extraction to transportation and waste disposal, requires huge earth-moving activities that strip surface soil and rocks. This stripping of surface soil causes erosion while destroying the topographical landscape, including the scenic beauty, of mined areas that results in the alteration if not outright disruption of the natural cycle of ecosystems. In as much as this impact on ecosystems involves the natural habitats of flora and fauna, coal mining also affects biodiversity as well as agricultural and natural land use.

Coal use involves intensive harnessing of water resources that not only diverts water use from irrigating farms but also depletes the local water levels. Moreover, studies of mining areas in other countries show that waste materials from coal mining create runoffs that pollute local bodies of water. Nearby rivers and streams show high presence of particulates and metallic properties that degrade their taste and potable quality. If the coal present in an area is rich in pyrite content, its waste runoffs are highly acidic that they could dissolve manganese, nickel, and zinc and other metallic wastes. These are toxic metals that, once borne by the runoffs toward water systems, can poison aquatic life and render the water unfit for human consumption and even agricultural use. And once water is contaminated, the contamination of the food chain comes next.

This is not a trivial piece of information, Mr. Speaker, as this would mean not only the poisoning of our people but also the loss of their livelihood, especially on the part of our farmers and fishermen. As has been the norm of mining firms, coal production areas are usually restricted from other agricultural and forestry activities, denying farmers and indigenous peoples of access to land and natural resources. In the region where I came from, now in the thick of heated public debates on the proposed construction of coal-fired power plant in Davao del Sur, among the most vehement bone of contention raised by the people, particularly the fisherfolks, is that it will pollute Davao Gulf from where tens of thousands of them are getting their livelihood.

But what concerns most this representation, Mr. Speaker, is the finding of various studies that coal mining and coal-fired power plants aggravate the vulnerabilities of women and children. A Health Impact Assessment conducted in mining communities in India revealed that women in communities hosting coal production have diminished longevity by ten years, from an average of 55 to 45. Their lives have been cut short by premature deaths due to diseases they acquired from high exposure to coal use and its particulates, diseases such as mentioned earlier. Majority of their children are lethargic. In the US, illnesses associated with exposure to pollution from coal, such as coughing attacks, breathing difficulties and skin infection, have been cited as the top reason for absenting from school.

Mr. Speaker, as this chamber is in the middle of interpellation and debate on the RH bill, it is well to stress that coal also affects the reproductive health of women. In studies in the US, traces of mercury were found to be present in the breast milk of women in coal mining communities while in China, which in the past decade has outpaced the US in coal use, women in coal-using communities were found to have developed gene mutation for lung cancer. Coal mining communities also exhibit high incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or death of infants below one year old.

Infants are born underweight while mothers had shortened lactation period (the period of producing milk).

Other impacts are simply intangible as to be beyond quantification. Foremost of these is the effect of contamination that has made coal mining communities immensely less conducive to nursing mothers and child rearing. In the coal mining regions of India, for instance, water contamination has affected the hygiene and sanitation of families. Because of the skin infection they acquired from contaminated water, women and children bath and wash their clothes sparingly, at intervals of twice or thrice a week. Another intangible impact is the forced diversion of the measly income of households to medical expenses instead of food, schooling and other basic necessities, a situation that exerts more psychological strain on mothers since they are the purse-bearer of the family.

This privilege speech cannot possibly cover all the grounds of the adverse impact of coal. But one thing ought not to be missed in all this: the supposed benefits of coal, as have been bandied around by the DoE and mining interest groups, are simply outmatched by its disadvantages and ill-effects on our society, our environment and our people, especially women and children. The government claim that coal is cheap is highly arguable as it has failed to lessen the costs of power and electricity in regions of the country where coal-fired power plants were put up. What is not arguable is, in the light of the cycle of diseases, injuries, and deaths that coal inflicts on host communities, it has only succeeded to cheapen life.

It is on this note, Mr. Speaker, that this representation would like to call on her colleagues and the leadership of this House to join the Filipino women in their observance of May 28 and when that day comes, let our action be a reexamination of our national policy on coal mining and coal-fired power plants.

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