Portland has taken many strides in curbing pollution. From banning plastic bags to reducing the use of toxins on our lawns, these collective actions protect our city. But despite these admirable efforts, a nearby coal pile remains an ongoing threat to our health.

The Sprague Energy coal pile, as seen from Cassidy Point Drive in Portland last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Forty-five thousand tons of coal are stored, handled and transferred along the Portland waterfront. This open-air coal pile sits within a mile of three schools and three health centers. Buildings located near the pile are covered in visible layers of dust that, as documented in a recent news report, infiltrates the buildings. Further raising concern about the dust’s harmful effects, a research paper from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management in 2018, found that pollution from coal storage can reach a radius of 25 miles. This suggests that damage from this coal pile might extend as far as Casco and Kennebunk.

Air pollution affects us all. In the near term, fine particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of no more than 2.5 micrometers – PM2.5 –  is linked to heart attacks, stroke and pediatric respiratory diseases among other health issues. In the long term, PM2.5 exposure is linked to cancer, chronic diseases like high blood pressure and early mortality. While PM2.5 is small – 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair – it has large effects. When breathed, PM2.5 spreads throughout the body, entering deep into the lungs, and it can cross into the bloodstream. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 demonstrated that each 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in long-term PM2.5 pollution is associated with a 4% increase in excess risk of all-cause mortality.

Following mounting data regarding the negative health effects of PM2.5 air pollution, the federal Environmental Protection Agency now proposes limiting annual exposure to concentrations of less than 10 micrograms per cubic meter. According to the American Lung Association, in Cumberland County, our average PM2.5 level was 7.1 micrograms per cubic meter for 2019-2021. Sources of PM2.5 include internal combustion engines and wildfires.

While we don’t have much traffic or forest fire exposure in Portland, we do have coal, and lots of it. Even when not burned, coal handling is a significant source of pollution. Both visible large particulate pollution dust and small fugitive PM2.5 escape from coal piles.

The economic harm from handling coal is also profound. The aforementioned research paper from Carnegie Mellon University estimates that damages from coal stockpiles are largely based on the increased risk of death following PM2.5 exposure. According to the estimated mortality costs of coal storage nationwide, Cumberland County pays a significant price. Using estimates as highlighted in Figure 1 of the paper, the increased mortality risk means coal storage costs between $101 and $250 per ton in Cumberland County. In other words, we collectively pay up to $11.25 million in coal handling damages per year. Despite the closure of all coal-fired power plants in Maine and a transition to renewable energy, these local economic costs persist.

How much are we willing to pay for a coal pile in our city, and why should we have to pay anything? In clinical medicine, we discuss risks and benefits with patients to help with shared decision making. For Portland residents, there is only risk and no benefit associated with this coal pile. Our health suffers, our natural environment suffers, our neighborhoods suffer, our small businesses suffer. No amount of mitigation is likely to contain the fugitive particulate dust that is obvious when bulldozers drive over the coal. If Portland is serious about curbing pollution to improve our health, now is the time to address this coal pile.

Comments are no longer available on this story