Why Commenting on Major Source Air Permits Matters — Miller Edition

by | Jan 3, 2022 | Air Quality, Clean Air Journal, Climate & Energy

From a high vantage point on any given day, Birmingham residents can see several plumes of vapor on the northwest horizon. Those fluffy, unnatural clouds emanate from the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country — the Miller Steam Plant in Quinton, located less than 17 miles from downtown Birmingham and less than a mile from Birmingham boundaries near West Jefferson.

Miller is a power plant operated by Alabama Power that burns coal to produce electricity, and emits certain harmful pollutants like sulfur dioxide, mercury, and greenhouse gases as a byproduct. Fossil fuel consumption is the largest contributor to global climate change.[1] Power plants that burn fossil fuels are particularly harmful: energy production is the “second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution from the U.S. economy, contributing 27 percent of the total, behind only transportation.”[2]

The company reports that the plant emitted nearly 19 million US tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, including 18.8 million US tons of CO2.[3] Those emissions numbers are “equivalent to more than half of the electricity generated by all of the power plants in California.”[4]

The state of Alabama ranks 9th in the nation for CO2 emissions generated by power plants, with an output of 50 million tons in 2020.[5] Of the 39 power plants in Alabama, Miller emits approximately 38 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Miller generates approximately 21.5 percent of the state’s energy.[6]Therefore, Miller generates less than a quarter of the state’s power while emitting more than a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Alabama needs to stop relying on harmful, wasteful, outdated energy sources. It can do so by switching to clean energy. In particular, it should phase out the Miller Steam Plant, which emits outrageous amounts of greenhouse gases while being less cost effective than cleaner power sources such as solar.[7]

Concerns about Alabama’s contributions to climate change are not theoretical. Climate change is real, it is here, and it is harming our communities now. Alabama has experienced the effects of climate change through stronger storms, flooding, and record heat. Tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense during the past 20 years, and wind speeds and rainfall rates are likely to increase as the climate continues to warm.[8]

Other climate impacts Alabama faces include increased drought conditions, greater risks of wildfires, heavier downpours leading to increased flooding, lower crop yields, greater risk of disease, and the loss of entire species.[9] In addition to those  2019 study by the Brookings Institute found that the Birmingham-Hoover metro area was in the top 15 of metro areas that will be hit economically by climate change.

You don’t need to be a scientist to see how our environment has changed, and how dangerous that change can be. As a result of the climate crisis, the Atlantic hurricane season has seen an increase in major storms since the 1970s[10]. Just this year, Hurricane Ida, the fifth-most powerful hurricane to hit the country,[11] resulted in at least 82 US fatalities[12] and billions of dollars in economic losses.[13] Future storms, regardless of intensity, are likely to cause more damage because of rising sea levels.

In addition to storms, we have seen higher heats. The average annual temperature in Alabama will increase by as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and 8-degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 under high-emissions scenarios.[14] By 2050, the typical number of heat wave days in Alabama is projected to increase from 15 to more than 70 days a year.[15] High air temperatures can cause heat stroke and dehydration and affect people’s cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Certain people are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.[16]  Black Americans in particular face higher, more dangerous temperatures as a result of global climate change. If current emissions trends continue, by mid-century, US counties with larger Black populations will face 72 very hot days per year, compared with 36 days in counties with smaller Black populations.[17] This should be of concern to leaders in Jefferson County, which has a population that is 43.5% Black.[18]

Climate change is affecting Alabama now, and Jefferson County leaders have an opportunity to take a stand by phasing out the Miller Steam Plant. Miller’s Title V permit became eligible for renewal this year, as it does every 5 years. A Title V permit outlines all the applicable regulations and requirements on a major source of air pollution, and it is required under the Clean Air Act.

The 30-day public comment period allows members of the public to weigh in on the permit and let the Jefferson County Health Department, and ultimately the EPA, know where the permit is lacking. The comment period ended on December 23 — right before the holidays.

Commenting on air permits is important because it allows individuals and organizations like GASP to act as watchdogs on the air regulatory process. It is just one way in which we, as members of the public who support a sustainable future, can push regulatory authorities toward clean, healthy energy — and away from power that pollutes. You can download the comments filed by GASP, Energy Alabama, SELC and Sierra Club here.

At GASP, we are working to turn away from an extractive economy and towards a green future through our Green New Deal for Birmingham campaign and our work with regional Green New Deal initiatives. You can join us.

This is about more than just one power plant. This is about building a future in which everyone can breathe clean air.


Footnotes

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter5.pdf, 354.

[2] Greenhouse Gases from Power Plants 2005-2020: Rapid Decline Exceeded Goals of EPA Clean Power Plan, Environmental Integrity Project, 7 (Feb. 25, 2021), available at https://environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Greenhouse-Gases-from-Power-Plants-2005-2020-report.pdf.

[3] Permit application, p. 348.

[4]  Greenhouse Gases from Power Plants, supra

[5] Id.

[6] See “Emissions by plant and by region,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, available at https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/emissions/.

[7]  See Eric Gimon, et. al., Coal Cost Crossover 2.0, Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC (May 2021), available at https://energyinnovation.org/publication/the-coal-cost-crossover-2021/.

[8] US Environmental Protection Agency (archives), What Climate Change Means for Alabama, (August 2016), https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/climate-change-al.pdf.

[9] See US Environmental Protection Agency (archives), What Climate Change Means for Alabama, (August 2016). https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/climate-change-al.pdf; see also Sierra Club, Climate Change in Alabama, (last accessed July 2020). https://www.sierraclub.org/alabama/climate.

[10] States at Risk, Alabama, available at https://statesatrisk.org/alabama/all.

[11] Rebecca Santana et. al., AP News, After Ida, small recovery signs amid daunting destruction, (Sept. 1, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/business-environment-and-nature-louisiana-392d8001a9c69df607d9a7b5b84474fa.

[12] Sophie Reardon, CBS News, Hurricane Ida death toll jumps to 82, (Sept. 9, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hurricane-ida-death-toll-update-82-louisiana-northeast/.

[13] Martha C. White, NBC News, Rebuilding after Hurricane Ida will be costly. Experts blame the pandemic and climate change, (Sept. 7, 2021), https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/rebuilding-after-hurricane-ida-will-be-costly-experts-blame-pandemic-n1278621.

[14] Sierra Club, Climate Change in Alabama, (last accessed July 2020). https://www.sierraclub.org/alabama/climate.

[15] States at Risk, supra.

[16] US Environmental Protection Agency (archives), What Climate Change Means for Alabama, (August 2016). https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/climate-change-al.pdf.

[17] “Disproportionate exposure to heat is a result of systemic racism and has been linked to the discriminatory practice of redlining. According to the American Economic Journal, without air conditioning, a 1-degree Fahrenheit increase in a school can reduce that year’s learning by 1 percent. Hot school days disproportionately impact minority students, and account for around 5 percent of the racial achievement gap.” Park, R. Jisung, Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, and Jonathan Smith. 2020. “Heat and Learning.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 12 (2): 306-39. DOI: 10.1257/pol.20180612); Nina Lakhani, Killer heat: US racial injustices will worsen as climate crisis escalates, The Guardian. July 28, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/28/us-racial-injustices-will-worsen-climate-crisis-escalate.

[18] “QuickFacts: Jefferson County, Alabama,” US Census (V2019), available at https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/jeffersoncountyalabama.

Mary Claire Kelly
Posted by Mary Claire Kelly

Mary Claire is GASP’s Climate Justice Legal Fellow through the Harvard Public Service Venture Fund. She is a 2021 graduate of Harvard Law School, where she focused her legal education experience on issues of environmental justice, climate justice, and immigrant justice. She went to law school specifically to become a public interest lawyer in the Southeast.

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