Sunday, August 05, 2007

Coal Power and Cancer in Delaware

The News Journal reports that state public health officials have found a higher than average incidence of cancer in Sussex County:
Years after citizen activists first asked the state for data to establish a pattern, the Division of Public Health has finally confirmed what they suspected: There's a cluster of cancer cases near the coal burning plant -- the state's worst polluter.
According to the state's own study, the rate of cancer cases in the area is 17 percent higher than the national average:
It shows an incidence of 553.9 cancer cases per 100,000 residents of a six ZIP code area around Indian River between 2000 and 2004. That's higher than the Delaware rate of 501.3 cases per 100,000, and the U.S. rate of 473.6.
This area is centered on NRG's Indian River coal plant a few miles east of Millsboro. The study didn't identify NRG's plant as the cause of the higher cancer rate. It's much harder to establish such a link for cancer than it is for infectious diseases which can be attributed to specific pathogens. Would a more detailed study tell us more? Environmental activists in Sussex County think the state should find out:
"We are saying, you need to spend the money and do it right," said Pat Gearity, spokeswoman for Citizens for Clean Power. Her group has worked to document higher-than-normal health problems in the area.
Gearity said the responsibility for investigating whether there is a link between the plants and the high rate of cancer lies with the state, not private citizens.
Lt. Gov. John Carney isn't sure whether further study would yield better data:
Carney, a member of the [Delaware Cancer Consortium's] advisory council, said he didn't have an opinion on whether the consortium should proceed with a more in-depth study. He said it might suffice to take actions "that would address whatever potential problems might exist," like reducing emissions at the plant and funding smoking cessation programs.
Unfortunately promised emission reductions at the plant are already behind schedule, and won't be implemented until 2009.
The debate over the environmental costs and benefits of coal and wind power focused largely on greenhouse gas emissions. But coal plants emit more than carbon; they spew forth toxic metals like mercury and lead.
Back in May, University of Delaware Professor Willett Kempton circulated a letter he wrote to the Public Service Commission with Jonathon Levy of the Harvard School of Public Health, in which they estimate the net public health costs of forgoing wind power in favor of continuing to burn fossil fuels:
With the inclusion of other health outcomes and given the factors described above that might imply greater benefits per unit emissions reduction in Delaware, the discounted present value of the health benefits of the proposed wind park likely greatly exceeds $1 billion.
The methodology of their study, which estimates the costs of a variety of pollution-caused illnesses, makes it hard to directly connect their findings with the state's findings of elevated cancer rates. But it does serve to remind us that the health effects of pollution are real and have consequences.
The Public Service Commission will hear a report on the negotiations from mediator Lawrence Hamermesh on Tuesday, August 7. Today's news of elevated cancer rates surrounding NRG's coal plant should underscore the importance of bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is inexcusable that the data doesn't exist. The last round of this concern happened under Tom Carper. The Cancer work group recommended a set of detailed monitoring protocols that were proposed by DNREC Secretary Tulou. However, this was shot down by Pete Ross of the budget office with support from DHSS. It never saw the light of day due to political maneuvering. John Carney was a political insider at this time as well. He should know what studies are needed. I guess he will have to use those same DNREC State employees to help put a spin on this for his campaign.

Now, it will take years for DNREC to collect the needed data.

In the meantime, anyone with any knowledge of the issue would at least try to look a the age distribution and demographics of those getting cancer, whether or not a disproportionate number of them some, are old, eat to much scrapple and fried foods, etc. to at least begin to remove some of the other potential causes and variables. It doesn't take a genius or cost a lot of money to due this, but then again John Carney is not the sharpest tool in the shed, so will need to be told what to do.

11:04 PM, August 06, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Thanks for the useful and well-informed background.

What I find curious is how Carney could be so flat-footed on the subject, considering that he had the report on his desk before anyone else. He had the opportunity to get out in front on this and instead came out sounding (once again) like a cautious bureaucrat.

The News Journal today reports that Carney has reversed himself and now thinks more study would be useful:

"He [Carney] said it would be especially valuable to get information about two other factors that could be responsible for the cancer cases: tobacco use and people moving into the area."

This sounds like just the kind of analysis to isolate other possible causes that you suggested.

8:17 AM, August 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Word from very reliable sources is that John Carney called DNREC Secretary Hughes very early Monday morning upset about the quote and NJ Article.

Hughes put the DNREC staff in rapid response mode (public funded campaign) mode to get him answers. During the Monday morning Department Staff meeting with Hughes and his appointed Division Directors, Hughes called John Carney and put him on speaker phone. Carney got the responses you read in the news journal today.

Your tax dollars at work.

5:36 PM, August 07, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Thanks for the inside information.

That John Carney (or any elected official) would work hard to respond to a story such as this is hardly news.

Again, what I find curious is that Carney, who had the report before anyone else, didn't get out front on this before the story became public. He had a head start and still ended up playing catch-up.

5:48 PM, August 07, 2007  

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