To breathe or not to breathe
September 17, 2013 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I am currently living about 5 miles from a coal-fired power plant. The smoke plume is obvious and seems somewhat ominous. Should I be worried about adverse health impacts?

My google-fu is failing me as I search for information regarding air quality and health/environmental impact that the power station may or may not have in my area, but I'm coming up empty.

Our zip code is 33579. Should I be worried about toxins in the air or am I getting worked up over nothing significant?
posted by gnutron to Health & Fitness (12 answers total)
My understanding is that the vast majority of the plume is composed of steam.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:27 AM on September 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can always get in contact with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as they will be the ones that oversee and regulate the plant. They will have information about what the plant is authorized to emit, how much, and what to look for when it is violating its permits.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 8:30 AM on September 17, 2013

I'd talk to the city or county and ask for more information about emissions in the area. That information does exist; I've seen reports coming from the various Florida counties I'd lived in (I've not lived in your area, though).

What is your current health situation? Do you currently have a compromised immune system or lung issue? I used to live in an extremely polluted city and near some oil refineries so am somewhat damaged; that said, moving to Florida where the coastal winds pull away hanging clouds of ick to a degree I think five miles from it isn't that significant a factor.

I wouldn't move closer or near an airport (I used to work at/near the airport and my lungs did not like it at all) - we wiped down our computers weekly to keep them clean (and they'd come back pretty messy even after a week).

One thing you can do (and has helped me) is change your filter in your HVAC system to be a MERV-8 filter. I think that's what I have, thinking about upgrading to a 9 when I call my guy to order them for next year (he talks me out of upgrading, Merv-8 is what he sells mostly and to large retail establishments for use in their establishments). I don't live near a coal plant but I am about three miles from a private airport and along a highway corridor.
posted by tilde at 8:32 AM on September 17, 2013

At one point in my career I worked as an Electric Utility Analyst for an investment bank. Assuming the owner is operating that plant legally (within the rules, regulations and laws), that plume is mostly steam. They should have scrubbers that "scrub" around 93-97% of the sulfur. It also depends on what type of coal they are burning. I guess it is sort of like saying jumbo shrimp, but there is clean coal. If I recall correctly, they actually capture the sulfur and other byproducts and reuse it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:43 AM on September 17, 2013

Sorry, got my rating wrong. I use MERV 7s. Merv 8s are pleated. "Pollutants" aren't listed on the site I found (it's mostly a sales site for a seller not in your area) but it looks like if you were worried about Lead dust, you could get a MERV 11 pleated one.

But as my guy told me, the higher you go on MERV rating, you do have, at least for a residential non-immune compromised general application, you have a lower ROI the higher your MERV. Since the holes the air goes through are smaller, the units have to work harder on drawing air through.

Maybe he's right, maybe he doesn't want to stock Merv 8/11. Either way, my lungs have been happier since I switched a few years back. And ditto what kalessin said - change them monthly!
posted by tilde at 8:50 AM on September 17, 2013

According to the EPA's site, Big Bend is on the list of plants covered by MATS (Mercury and Air Toxic Standards). What that means here. Based on the website link and being on that list, they appear to be in compliance with EPA regulations. The smoke plume is relatively innocuous in terms of smoke plumes.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:53 AM on September 17, 2013

"zip code 94703, my allergies are better, my asthma is better"
More likely because you moved to an area with different plant life, and you're no longer exposed to the pollen to which you were allergic.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:54 AM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not going to speak to air quality stuff here but as a mechanical engineering trained person and son, grandson, and nephew of coal fired powerplant blue collar workers I'll fill you in on some things/terms you may not be familiar with. My family members were Turbine Mechanics, Assistant Plant Control Operators and Plant Control Operators all.

Without a picture I'm guessing what you're seeing is steam. Not smoke. The plants will have smokestacks but the smoke coming out will usually be invisible in all but shutdown, spinning up, or OMFG something is broken situations. In those situations you'll see a slight haze coming from the stack, nothing like what you'd expect from a power plant stack circa the industrial revolution or anything, just a haze of colored gasses.

This is not to say that your neighboring plant isn't putting out gasses/smoke. It invariably is of course, but depending on the situation at that exact plant, mostly the type of coal they're burning or if they are in one of the operating modes I mentioned above or if they have scrubbers installed/operational, there are more or less pollutants coming out of the stack than you may expect.

I'm just trying to say that visibility of smoke really isn't a great indicator for air quality concerns to the layman/woman and visibility of steam certainly isn't. It's my understanding that natural gas plants will put out, possibly more, smoke-but-really-steam as well and they burn cleaner than coal, etc etc etc.

So, somewhat tangential but helpful I hope.

TL:DR - On preview of the link to the powerplant you mention there's an image that includes several smokestacks, only one seems to be outputting any smoke at all. That doesn't mean the other stacks aren't putting anything out, it is almost certain they actually are. But that doesn't mean any one of them is more or less responsible for your air quality concerns.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:58 AM on September 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, I can pull some information down from a casual glance at the link you provided to details on Big Bend Station, namely the following blurb combined with the picture:

Big Bend Power Station has four coal-fired units with a combined output of more than 1,700 megawatts. The first unit began service in 1970; the second and third generating units were added in 1973 and 1976, respectively; and Unit Four was added in 1985. A natural gas- and fuel oil-fired peaking unit was installed in 2009 to provide additional power during periods of peak demand.

The picture on that page also seems to have 4 stacks. That matches up with the blurb so, to me, that means one of those stacks is for the natural-gas unit. The same page mentions that, as expected, scrubbers are installed as well. But without a detailed technical analysis and background it's impossible to know what type or if they meet some sort of criteria you deem acceptable.

The scrubber for Big Bend Unit Four began operation in 1984, and since 1995, has simultaneously scrubbed Unit Three as well. The scrubber for Big Bend Units One and Two began operation at the end of 1999. The scrubber system complies with standards set by the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and removes 95 percent of sulfur dioxide from all four units.

The dates for the scrubbers' respective installation dates (1984 and 1999) give some indications as to their abilities but that's really beyond the scope of this question. Newer being better anyway and intended rather than retrofitted being better as well. Based upon dates and numbering, I'm guessing that the Unit Four scrubber was included when Unit Four was built (1984 it seems?), and was also designed to handle Unit Three being tacked on a year later (the next newer unit) as well. The scrubber for for Units One and Two (the oldest of the units) seems to be a retrofit that was added in 1999.

The more you know...
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:09 AM on September 17, 2013

Last thing, I promise....

I said: In those situations you'll see a slight haze coming from the stack, nothing like what you'd expect from a power plant stack circa the industrial revolution or anything, just a haze of colored gasses.

If you do see a heavy plume that looks like something straight out of industrial revolution England or like this then you are seeing steam, not the direct byproduct(s) of some sort of combustion.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:16 AM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not defending this as optimal, mind you, but I grew up around a GM plant and a coal-fired power plant for a public utility, and when I was a kid they belched black smoke like Charles Dickens was alive and well. These days, both put out a very slightly gray, but mostly white, plume that dissipates quickly.

Really, the air in America hasn't been cleaner since before the Industrial Revolution. Airborne particulates are way, way down and almost all major point sources, like power plants, are in a heavily regulated situation where they have some mitigation in place and have regular inspections, improvements, and maintenance to keep it that way. The improvements are so noticeable that they may have broad sociological implications, such as a reduction in crime (tied to the cessation of leaded gasoline).

If you're concerned about this particular source, I would hook up with a public utility watchdog in your state or city and find out what their concerns are -- chances are they have a listing of out-of-compliance point sources already and have been lobbying about them for years. If you're concerned about your home's air quality, you can have that tested (for a $fee), and you can invest in things like HEPA filters or personal air scrubbers. You can also ask your doctor for a lung capacity test and so forth.

But for the most part, chances are that you're breathing much cleaner air than you did when you were a kid, and certainly than your parents did.

All that said, the medical literature has been watching a dramatic and unexplained increase in asthma in North America and some other places.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on September 17, 2013

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