A new study indicates there is a link between the air pollution produced by coal-fired power plants and a negative impact on impact on infant health. The study arrives as President Donald Trump has vowed to enact policies to resurrect the lagging coal industry.
On April 3, the scientific journal Nature Energy published a study conducted by Edson Severnini of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Severnini had researched the impact on communities in Tennessee Valley after two nuclear power plants had been shut down in the 1980s.
Following the disastrous Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania 1979, two nuclear plants were shut down in the Tennessee Valley area, and were replaced by coal-fired plants. Severnini found that babies being born in the surrounding area were on average lighter than those who had been before before the nuclear plant closures.
"At the time policymakers thought they were protecting public health by scrutinizing nuclear power plants, given the partial meltdown that happened in Three Mile Island," Severnini told The Guardian. "But they didn't anticipate this indirect effect that happened through the relocation of electricity generation from nuclear to coal."
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The author's study also found that air pollution in those areas had increased by 10 micrograms per cubic meter after the nuclear plants were replaced with coal-fired plants, based on data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"Clearly there was an effect of coal emissions driving pollution and -- in turn -- infant health," Severnini told Reuters.
The study author added that a lower birthweight leads to other adverse effects for newborns, such as a shorter height, lower IQ and statistically 0.7 percent lower wages in adulthood.
Frank Gilliland of the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine believes that Severnini's study should not be taken at face value, noting that the EIA data was both broad and outdated in how it measured air pollution. Despite these reservations, Gilliland believes there is a link between air pollution and infants with a lower birth weight.
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"The choices in terms of modes of energy production are important," Gilliland said. "They have consequences."
The coal industry has been in decline in the U.S. over the past decade. On March 28, Trump signed an executive order rescinding the majority of former President Barack Obama's environmental directives to curb climate emissions, citing that the regulations had hurt the coal industry.
"My administration is putting an end to the war on coal," Trump said while signing the order, according to The New York Times.
Despite the president's assertion that lifting environmental regulations will help resurrect the coal industry, electricity executives have shown little interest in future coal investment.
"Whatever happens in the near term in the current administration doesn't affect our long-term planning for future generation," said Southern Company vice president Jeff Burleson, whose utility powers the homes of 44 million Americans.
Associate vice president Jairo Chung of Moody's Investors Service asserts that the coal industry is in decline not because of environmental regulations but by the free market now favors renewable energy sources.
"This is not an environmentally driven trend we are seeing," Chung said. "What we are seeing now is the interior of the U.S., which is very rich, states and utilities are pushing ahead in investing in it -- not because of regulation or environmental concerns, but because it's economically driven."