Coal Kills!

GROUP DETECTS MERCURY IN WASTE FROM COAL POWER PLANT. Toxic alarm raised by Greenpeace over Philippine Coal-Fired Power Plants

Feature story - August 30, 2001
The environmental group Greenpeace today drew attention to the alarming build-up of toxic heavy metals in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants all over the country, citing the particular experience of a coal power station in Batangas whose waste materials proved positive for mercury contamination.

In a demonstration and press conference held at the vast ash waste field of the notorious 600-megawatt coal plant of the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) in Calaca, Batangas, Greenpeace released the results of recent analytical tests which confirm the presence of the deadly neurotoxin on ash dumped haphazardly by NAPOCOR in open fields beside coastal fishing grounds in the area.

"The presence of mercury in the coal plant's waste stream is a clear demonstration of the grave threats posed by the combustion of coal for energy to human health and the environment. More specifically, our findings indicate the alarming and insidious build-up of heavy metal contamination in the coastal environment surrounding the Calaca coal plant," said Energy campaigner Red Constantino of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Mercury, the only metal that remains liquid at room temperature, is so dangerous that it only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon to contaminate a 10.11-hectare lake to the point where fish in that lake are no longer safe for human consumption. A typical 100-megawatt coal-burning power plant emits approximately 25 pounds of mercury a year. The Calaca coal plant emits an estimated 62.62 tons of ash per hour on a 24-hour daily basis.

Mercury exposure in high doses can cause ailments such as tremors, inability to walk, convulsions, and even death. It is also capable of causing severe brain damage in developing fetuses , mental disorders, motor and emotional disturbances in exposed adults. The exposure to mercury depends on its form, with mercury vapor and methyl mercury being the most likely forms since they are nearly completely absorbed into the body. Once mercury enters water - either directly or through deposition from the air - biological processes transform it into methyl mercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that bioaccumulates in fish and other animals that eat fish.

Considering that the Calaca plant has been operating for about 17 years now, Greenpeace believes that the probability of fish-eating communities along the coast already suffering from varying degrees of mercury poisoning is very high. Residents of villages surrounding the coal plant are also subjected to regular blasts of ash carried by winds. Serious respiratory afflictions have reportedly become part of the daily lives of many residents in the Calaca coal plant communities since the power station started operating in 1984.

To dramatize the toxics pollution associated with coal power plants, Greenpeace activists planted two hundred (200) white crosses in the ash field of the Calaca power plant. The activists also held aloft an eight-by-two yard banner that carried the message "Coal Kills" as a backdrop to the looming twin smokestacks of the power station. Later on, the activists delivered their message to officials of the power plant, and also briefed community residents about the implications of their findings.

Coal plants are notorious for the havoc they wreak on unfortunate host communities. Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, emitting 29 percent more carbon than oil and 80 percent more than gas. Coal plants are among the identified culprits that produce tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that has led to the rapid warming of the world and dangerous fluctuations in the planet's climatic system.

Because of lack of adequate studies on the heavy metal impact of coal plants on the environment and neighboring Philippine communities, little attention is paid to the potentially disastrous accumulation of poisons ingested by humans and animals. According to Greenpeace, this is a neglect that must be addressed immediately and systematically. "We demand an immediate and full-scale environmental audit of all operating coal plants combined with a health audit of victim communities in the country," added Constantino.

Greenpeace emphasized that the country's current excess energy supply allows the government enough room to push for the mainstreaming of renewable energy projects using wind and solar power. According to the organization, renewable energy is clean, sustainable and, when planned with public participation, ultimately beneficial to the people. This is the exact opposite of fossil fuel-based energy generation, which foists on host communities the burden of livelihood losses, environmental degradation, and health problems.

"The arrogance of the Philippine government in foisting coal plants on unwary communities so that other more distant populations can enjoy the boon of debatable development, combined with its apparent ignorance of the hazards that coal plants bring is possibly claiming, the future, not to mention the very lives of Filipinos at present. Unless the government imposes a moratorium on the construction of new and additional coal plants, the wretched experience of Calaca is bound to be repeated in other places," added Constantino.

Read the Mercury report