For decades, the Portland Generating Station, located in Pennsylvania close to the New Jersey border, spewed an average of 2,600 tons of sulfur dioxide each month into the atmosphere. Pennsylvania industry and residents got the benefit of Portland’s electricity. New Jersey residents got to choke on the pollution as it drifted eastward on the prevailing breeze. In 2009, it emitted 30,465 tons of sulfur dioxide — more than double the amount from all electricity generating facilities in New Jersey combined, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
A study published in April 2017 by Muzhe Yang, associate professor of economics and Shin-Yi Chou, chair of the Lehigh University department of economics, found the Portland facility had a measurable effect on pregnant women living up to 30 miles downwind. Based on data compiled between 1990 and 2006, the researchers determined that women within the plume of pollution from the Portland facility had a 6.5% greater risk of low birth weight and a 17.12% greater risk of very low birth weight.
The Portland Generating Plant played a critical role in the Clean Power Plan devised by the Obama administration. As a result of litigation brought by the EPA, a court found it was the sole source of pollution in nearby New Jersey and ordered it closed. In June, 2014, the plant was shuttered. By December 2015, sulfur dioxide emissions in nearby New Jersey had dropped by over 99%.
Yang and Chou repeated their study after the shutdown. Their findings, published this week online in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management and reported by Lehigh University, show that shutting down the plant reduced the likelihood of a low birth weight baby by 0.89 percentage points or about 15% and reduced the likelihood of a preterm birth by 2.83 percentage points or about 28%. The findings are based on medical data from New Jersey zip codes within 60 miles of the plant.
“Our study is the first to show fetal health improvement as a result of shutting down a large air polluter leading to a drastic reduction of [sulfur dioxide] emissions,” the authors say. Their study will be included in an upcoming print version of the Journal. They point out their findings strongly support the case for the Clean Power Plan, as it “examines a case where cross-border air pollution had not been effectively dealt with by decentralized, state level policy making, letting a coal-fired power plant located on the border between two states pollute the downwind state for years without being controlled.”
The findings are another link in the growing chain of evidence that atmospheric pollution caused by burning fossil fuels is a danger to human health. A responsible government would take appropriate steps to protect its citizens from harm but the Trump administration thumbs its nose at science and exhibits no concerns for the health of its citizens, preferring to blame poor choices by those people for any ills they suffer — choices like living downwind from a coal power plant. “Blame the victim” is the mantra of today’s Republicans.
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