Guest opinion: Speak up on health effects of burning coal – Billings Gazette, March 2, 2013

March 5, 2013

Categories: Coal, Editorial, News

After practicing family medicine for 30 years, I had to step back from my clinical practice in order to better serve patients and our community. It became clear to me that we need to address the true causes of our diseases. One of the most dangerous threats to current and future generations is our use of coal — a critical and immediate issue for Montanans.

When smoking was identified as dangerous, physicians challenged the tobacco industry and demanded disclosure of harmful health effects. Now we need to apply the same standards to our use of coal.

Montana sits on some of the largest coal deposits in North America. The Otter Creek coal tracts in southeast Montana alone contain 1.3 billion tons of coal.

Burning coal releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon emissions, and the primary cause of climate change responsible for heat related deaths, natural disasters, infectious diseases, and threatening food and water supplies worldwide. Montana’s Colstrip Power Plant is the eighth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States, according to the EPA.

Air pollutants

Coal plants are also responsible for 40 percent of all hazardous air pollutants, according to the American Lung Association. These emissions contribute to four out of five of the leading causes of death — heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory diseases. Recent studies are showing correlation with autoimmune diseases and even chronic neurologic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

More than half of human caused mercury is from coal, according to the EPA. This is a toxic heavy metal that  causes brain damage and heart disease. In the U.S. an estimated half million children have mercury levels high enough to impair intellectual development. Montana has more than 50 bodies of water with warnings for women and children to avoid too much fish consumption due to mercury. Coal mining also releases many other toxins including lead and arsenic.

Every aspect of coal usage from the mining, burning to waste is damaging to human health. Waste is contaminated with heavy metals and can contaminate drinking water and damage vital organs and the nervous system. Colstrip plant in Montana generates 1.6 million tons of coal ash per year. Settlements have already been paid to Montanans who live near the leaky impoundment ponds for damages.

Because it is apparent that the damage and true cost of coal is not acceptable, the U.S. is decreasing its use of coal. There are cleaner alternatives.

Return from China

Unfortunately, now we are proposing to mine the coal in Montana and transport it to Asia. China is building one new coal plant per week. Pollutants like ozone, mercury and carbon dioxide travel back to the U.S. in 5-10 days. This is less time than it takes to ship it to China. The direct effect on the atmosphere and climate change is enormous. This truly is the carbon time bomb that may push us to the tipping point.

When doctors are faced with medical emergencies, we can’t afford to ignore it. We are called upon to act in a rational, life saving manner. More than 20 Montana doctors have written letters asking for a Human Health Impact Statement about further use and transportation of coal. The Washington Academy of Family Practice has requested a similar assessment because of concerns about the proposed transport through our communities.

Citizens can also weigh in. Until Wednesday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is taking comments on Arch Coal’s proposal to mine the Otter Creek tracts. The building of this mine would mean more coal mining, coal trains through Montana communities, pollution, toxic waste and climate change. You can submit comments at and urge the DEQ to consider coal’s impacts on human health.

Dr. Georgia Milan

220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154