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We need clean air and water

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Minnesotans love our clean air and water, but we need to realize that over-reliance on old coal-fired power plants is literally making us sick. The pollution from burning coal creates a host of serious, life-threatening health problems -- especially for children and senior citizens -- including asthma attacks, respiratory illness, cancer and heart disease. It also increases emergency room visits and hospital admissions, driving up healthcare costs and hurting our state's economy.

A combination of geography and prevailing winds sends emissions from North Dakota's coal-fired power plants into northern Minnesota's air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 200 premature deaths in Minnesota will be prevented when the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule goes into effect in 2013.  Adding common-sense pollution controls to these power plants will not only further protect human health in our region, it will help protect and preserve our overall air and water quality, and keep our treasured lakes and recreation areas pristine for our grandchildren to enjoy.

So why are Minnesota electric co-ops fighting the EPA's proposed regional haze air pollution safeguard? The EPA is right in deciding to require pollution control installations at Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young coal plant and Basin Electric Power's Leland Olds Station because of the benefits it provides to public health and welfare.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, the two coal plants at issue in North Dakota annually cause approximately 63 deaths, 98 heart attacks, 1,070 asthma attacks, 46 hospital admissions, 39 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 64 emergency room visits. EPA's Regional Haze safeguard will clean up our air -- and it's not just about visibility. Pollutants that cause visibility impairment also harm public health. Haze pollutants include nitrogen oxides ("NOx"), sulfur dioxide ("SO2particulate matter, ammonia, and sulfuric acid. NOx is a precursor to smog, which is associated with respiratory diseases, asthma attacks and decreased lung function. In addition, NOx reacts with ammonia, moisture, and other compounds to form particulates that can cause and worsen respiratory diseases, aggravate heart disease, and lead to premature death. 

Similarly, SO2 increases asthma symptoms, leads to increased hospital visits, and can form particulates that aggravate respiratory and heart diseases and cause premature death. Its particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause a host of health problems, such as aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks.

The Clean Air Act requires sensible safeguards to protect public health. In fact, the EPA estimated that in 2015, full implementation of the Regional Haze protection nationally will prevent 1,600 premature deaths, 2,200 non-fatal heart attacks, 960 hospital admissions, and over one million lost school and work days.  These health benefits are valued at $8.4 to $9.8 billion annually.

Coal pollution is making us sick, and not only is that costing lives, it's also costing big money. For example, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, in 2004 asthma cost $240 million directly in hospitalizations, emergency department visits, doctor's office visits, and medications, and $181 million indirectly in lost school and work days, for total of $421 million.

In 2009, 60 Minnesota residents died of asthma. And utility companies are fighting the air pollution safeguards aimed at protecting human health?

Some utility companies planned poorly, and now they expect Minnesotans to pick up the tab in health costs. In just one example, Minnkota is choosing to spend money on continuing to operate a nearly 40-year-old coal plant that, in 2005, was the second largest nitrogen oxide emitter in the entire country. Today there are cleaner, reliable alternatives to coal, as well as proven technologies to reduce emissions in existing plants.

Clean air and water means healthy people and a healthy economy. We welcome these long overdue public health safeguards with open arms. -- Marti Lundin, Program Manager, American Lung Association in Minn.

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