Study Shows Benefits of Closing Coal Plants Could Be Broader in the US Than Previously Thought

Recent research has suggested that shutting down coal plants could have even broader health benefits than experts previously thought. While experts already knew that coal plant closures resulted in cleaner air and better air-quality levels, a new study indicates that cleaning up the air could have greater benefits than data suggested.

Researchers studied the 2016 closure of a coal processing plant in Neville Island on the Ohio River that had produced coal-coke for steelmaking processes for close to a century. They discovered a substantial reduction in air-pollution levels in neighboring communities.

Specifically, sulfur dioxide went down by 90% and arsenic decreased by 66%. There was also a marked improvement in particle pollution. Most importantly, the researchers found that the coal plant closure caused an immediate 42% reduction in ER visits for heart issues as well as strokes and resulted in a continued decline in such visits throughout the study period. Two local communities that were located further away from the plant were used as controls but did not register any reductions in emergency room visits for stroke and heart problems.

For the people living close to such plants, the effects of pollution are real and felt every day. Living next to coal processing plants is associated with a higher risk of premature deaths from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, low birth weights, infant mortality, and behavioral and developmental disorders in infants and children.

People from the local community have testified about the difficulty of living with dust, air pollution and strong odors from the plant, with some saying their proximity to the firm exacerbated respiratory conditions such as asthma and made them harder to manage. Following the plant’s 2016 closure, residents reported seeing significantly clearer skies and odor-free outdoors alongside health improvements.

George Thurston, the study lead and a New York University Grossman School of Medicine professor, said the research team found “much larger cardiac health benefits” after the plant’s closure than expected, providing solid proof that air pollution from fossil fuels is a lot more toxic compared to other types of air pollution. Thurston added that policymakers have far underestimated the immediate health benefits caused by phasing out fossil-fuel combustion and processing in towns and cities.

Since air-pollution reduction policies are often gradual in nature and refrain from making significant changes, detecting their impact on public health can be difficult. Professor Dan Greenbaum from the U.S. Health Effects Institutes lauded the study and stated that it was a clear case of cleaner air improving the health of local communities.

As more of these studies are published, the writing may be on the wall for coal-extraction companies such as Warrior Met Coal Inc. (NYSE: HCC) to either venture into other lines of business or risk going out of business as the harms of coal energy are brought into the spotlight.

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