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Talking about coal to the board of health

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on December 2, 2008

All around the country, PSR activists are building informed opposition to coal plants.  In Iowa, Maureen McCue, Coordinator of Iowa PSR, has forged an exciting new front by educating county boards of health. The result:  board of health resolutions in favor of a coal moratorium.  Code Black Alert! interviewed Maureen about her work.

Q: Why educate county boards of health on the issue of coal plant permitting?

McCue: I think it’s very important to go to all of the various bodies including, here in Iowa, 99 county boards of health -- to talk about coal plant permitting, because the whole permitting process barely acknowledges that there are potential health problems.  Public health personnel are tasked with protecting the public health and preventing environmental health problems.  The only way they can do it is if they know about it.

Q: What have you been able to accomplish so far?

McCue: We have contributed to resolutions on the part of three counties, one county medical society, and the state medical society opposing the construction of any new coal plants until the technology is available to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide they produce.

Q: How did you get boards of health to listen to you? 

McCue: First, I’ve only gone where invited.  Then, they listened because I am a physician, I teach global health in the college of public health, I sit on the board of health, and I’m the coordinator of Iowa PSR.  And I didn’t do it alone; I worked with colleagues, especially a member of our local board of health who is now also a member of PSR, and with some of my students.

We sent letters to all the boards of health about the fact that these power plants were going up and that they involved risks to public health and would they like to know more?  Would they like to have a conversation about it?  First we were invited to come to Blackhawk County where one of the plants is going up.  The board said that each of us could give two minutes worth of testimony, but there were so many testimonies, they actually ended up passing a resolution in favor of not building any more plants until capture and sequester technology is available.  

Q: What information does your testimony focus on?

McCue: I focus on the imperative for public health workers to address this threat, and I provide the public health overview.   Then we have local people speak about their fears for their county.  For example, once we were testifying right around the time of the [June 2008] flood, so people were very concerned about all the post-combustion coal wastes that contain heavy metals getting into flood waters.  It was very striking because the waters were rising rapidly.  My colleague or other local activists then talk about the cost of putting up wind farms and the benefits of wind energy.  Wind is an expensive investment initially, but once it’s up, that wind is free.  You’re not bringing in diesel trains loaded with coal year after year after year.

Q: What obstacles have you faced? 

McCue: Inertia, basically, and lack of information.  When we first started, the questions from the boards of health were, Is it our job?  Is it too political?  Public health and medical people are especially resistant regarding global warming.  They don't want to overstate anything beyond their acknowledged competency. They're much more comfortable talking about the direct, measurable, irrefutable connections between inhaling pollutants and poor respiratory or cardiovascular health. 

So medical people will talk about particulate matter and mercury, but many still think climate change is too hot to handle.  Their perception is still that the science is questionable, or unproven, or it’s too political.  The energy companies have done a very good job of misinforming the public, and doctors are cautious about taking a political position on anything.  Nevertheless, they are willing to say that emissions need to be captured and sequestered before they support more coal-powered energy production. 

Even with the floods, many people here are not yet ready to say that it was climate change.  They’ll say, “Oh we have floods cyclically.”  And it’s true, many things contribute to floods.  We have destroyed the natural integrity of the environment, we are corn from river to river, there are no trees Iowa is the most altered landscape in the country.  People are willing to admit that our dikes are not good enough, or perhaps we should plant some trees along the waterways.  But they have a hard time making that leap to a new paradigm.  There’s a fear of change.  We are working on overcoming that.

There’s also the appeal of jobs.  Certainly when we got to Marshalltown, where one plant is going to be sited, people there see it as jobs and economic advantages at an economically challenging time.  The energy companies make donations to the hospitals, the schools, the library… The town has essentially been bought. 

Q: Any advice for PSR members who might reach out to their local boards of health?

McCue: Be brave and go forth.

 

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