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How ‘Clean Coal’ Affected a Pennsylvania Town

Since the early 1970s, the Cheswick coal-fired plant has provided power for homes in the region. When it first opened, it was considered state-of-the-art tech: It was among the first generating stations in the nation to install scrubbers that purport to reduce emissions. But it still pumped massive amounts of pollution into the air and surrounding waterways, at a high cost to the more than 30,000 people living within three miles of the plant. Allegheny County, where the plant is located, ranks in the top 2 percent of all counties in the United States for cancer risks from air pollution and has consistently received an F grade from the American Lung Association for both high-ozone days and particle pollution.

At 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, coal soot can lodge deep in the lungs when inhaled. Studies have linked it to heart and lung disease, respiratory illnesses, premature births, and premature deaths. But the particles are invisible, and their effects on any one individual are difficult to prove. Szalai, a retired dialysis technician and home health-care worker, gets frequent headaches and has allergies. It’s hard to say for certain whether they’re connected to the plant, but Szalai suspects they might be, and she says she has seen countless examples of friends and neighbors suffering from cancer and breathing issues. “It’s not a healthy place to live in,” she said. Over the years, she noted, the plant has tried to clean up its pollution with new scrubbers and the addition of a second smokestack. But “coal is coal,” she said. “You can only make it so much cleaner.”

A 2019 draft report on coal-soot emissions by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency indicated that tightening regulations even slightly could save thousands of lives. In a preliminary study from April, researchers at Harvard University found that those living in areas with long-term exposure to the fine particulate matter were more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who lived in less polluted areas. One week after the preliminary findings of the Harvard study came out, the Trump administration announced its decision to not tighten regulations on industrial soot emissions.

The Trump administration has reversed or rolled back more than 100 environmental policies governing air and water pollution, toxic waste, drilling, and more. This isn’t the first time its actions have affected the environment in Allegheny County. The Obama administration tried to compel coal-fired power plants to clean up their emissions with the Clean Power Plan. But the Trump administration terminated the Obama plan before it took effect, part of an effort to prop up a declining coal industry. “We’ve got the cleanest country in the planet right now,” Trump said in 2018 after he announced plans to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. “But I’m getting rid of some of these ridiculous rules and regulations, which are killing our companies … and our jobs.” Despite his efforts, coal-industry jobs have declined under his administration, as power companies move to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.

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