Considering All the Health Effects of Retrofitting or Retiring a Paducah Plant

Oct 7, 2014

Credit Erica Peterson/Kentucky Public Radio

A new analysis from an environmental group takes a deep look at the potential health consequences of either retrofitting or retiring a Western Kentucky power plant.

The Shawnee Fossil Plant is near Paducah, on the Ohio River. It’s a coal-fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Right now, TVA is preparing to retrofit the plant with pollution controls so it can keep burning coal and comply with federal air pollution regulations. But in a draft document that will be finalized later this year, the company said it was evaluating the future of the Shawnee plant.

And those two possible scenarios made Shawnee an attractive candidate for a Health Impact Assessment, said Deborah Payne of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

“The intent of this project is to look at how health can be impacted either if they retrofit the plant and continue operation or if they retire the plant and close down, and the health impacts associated with that,” she said.

Health Impact Assessments, or HIAs, are a tool used to examine any topic through the lens of health. There are some obvious takeaways: if the Shawnee plant is retrofitted and keeps burning coal, there will be ongoing air and water pollution.

But this Health Impact Assessment goes farther. It asks: if the plant does close, what could the health effects be? Conditions like alcoholism and heart attacks are more frequent among the unemployed, and a loss of the taxes paid by the Shawnee plant could strain public safety services like police and fire.

“We wanted to be as inclusive as possible because this conversation frequently is very siloed,” Payne said. “So you might look at a plant’s retrofit and it would look just specifically at air quality issues. But the bigger context of this issue is that the plant could go either way, it could be retired.

"Even though TVA isn’t talking about it publicly, it is on their list of plants for potential retirement.”

The assessment also includes recommendations for each scenario, in order to protect the health of people living in the county. Payne said those run the gamut—some are expensive and time consuming, like remediating existing groundwater contamination. But others are easy to implement. If the plant retrofits and keeps operating:

“One recommendation was with the public school system, that they start including a routine check of air quality in the community with the air quality index,” Payne said. “Just like they check for weather and just like they check for heat index, they should also do a daily check for particulate matter.”

This will allow schools to limit the time children spend outdoors on bad air days, and provide extra attention to students with asthma and other breathing problems.

Payne said HIAs haven’t traditionally been a tool used in the United States; they’re more popular in Europe. But she said using these assessments to look at all the different ways health can be affected by decisions like retrofitting or closing a power plant can be helpful.

“This is a really difficult time for a lot of communities, we have coal plants that are retiring, we have coal mines that are shutting down in both Eastern and Western Kentucky, and this isn’t an easy conversation but something we all need to value is our health. And if we can make priorities to help alleviate poor health outcomes, then we should try to make those steps.”

Payne said TVA provided information and input to her during the process of creating the HIA, but the recommendations included are suggestions to help guide decision-makers and not a mandate.