Cancer cluster near power plant to be studied further

Delaware officials are expected to begin another study soon in an attempt to find out why cancer is more prevalent around the Indian River Power Plant than in other areas across the state and nation.

A committee of the Delaware Cancer Consortium recommended on Monday that officials study the demographics around the plant, including identifying who has died from cancer, how they died, if they smoked and how long they have lived in the area.

Results from such a study should better determine whether the higher cancer rate around Delaware’s largest air polluter has anything to do with the plant’s emissions.

“They want to find out what’s going on,” said John Hughes, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and member of the consortium’s environmental committee that studied the issue Monday, shortly after a Department of Public Health report formally identified the cluster but advised that more investigation was needed before it could be traced to the power plant.

“I think that the Consortium and Public Health both want to get to the bottom of this. They want to find out what’s going on,” Hughes said.

The report issued by the Delaware Department of Public Health on July 17 found that cancer rates around the plant are 17 percent higher than the national average. For every 100,000 people in the country, 473.6 are diagnosed with cancer, according to the report. In Delaware, that number is 501.3. In six ZIP codes around the Indian River power plant the rate is 553.9.

The report also noted that lung cancer cases around the power plant are “significantly higher,” than the Delaware average. Around the plant, lung cancer accounts for 19 percent of all cancer cases compared to a 15 percent Delaware average.

The report came after environmental activists pressured Lt. Gov. John Carney to study whether the plant has detrimental effects on the public’s health and cancer rates.

Despite the identification of a cancer cluster around the power plant, officials with NRG, which owns the power plant, said they, too, welcome the idea of further study of the issue, which they would improve the data from which conclusions about the cluster — and the power plant — could be drawn.

Meredith Moore, a spokesperson for NRG, said, “We are supportive of more research because the study that came out is not an epidemiological study, it’s just a collection of data. There were some key factors that were not taken into account that we think should be part of a more in-depth study. We are supporting the Department of Health to better understand the health issues that are facing our communities.”

The consortium recommendation also comes as state officials have reportedly reached a deal with NRG to clean up the power plant’s emissions. Tougher emission standards were approved last year but appealed by NRG, when officials said they could not meet the standards in the strict time frame laid out in the regulation. The deal will reportedly relax the deadlines in the regulation, which called for at least partial clean-up by 2009 — a deadline NRG officials have consistently called unrealistic.

“We have gone through a legal process with the assistance of the attorney general’s office and we have reached an agreement in principle that NRG will accept the multi-pollutant regulation on the time schedule that they think they can meet,” Hughes said. “The negotiators that negotiated for my agency are among the toughest in the country. I call them pit bulls. I know that, when they’re satisfied, we’ve reached a high standard.”

NRG’s appeal also came under fire from environmental activists, who saw the move as an unwillingness to change a plant that could be detrimental to the public health. Without further study, though, it is still unclear how the particles released into the air at Indian River actually affect the public and whether or not those emissions have contributed to the elevated cancer rate.

“Tobacco use is a hypothesis that should be further explored to explain the higher rate of lung cancer cases in Indian River than in the state, and possibly for the higher rate of cancer overall,” the July 17 report states. “This is because cigarette smoking causes about 85 percent of all lung cancer. Data on tobacco use in this area and for these cases would be required to explore this hypothesis further, but is not available.”

The analysis offered in the report, it noted, had “significant limitations.”

“No adjustments were made for other potentially relevant factors, such as smoking incidence, socio-economic status, or access to health care. In addition, exposure or dose data was not available or considered,” the report stated.

On a visit to the area last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the state’s former governor, said he remained concerned about the impact of pollution on Delaware residents.

Carper, who is the chairman of the Senate’s Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said he was hoping that his fellow legislators on Capital Hill would start to look beyond enhanced regulations controlling the emission of carbon dioxide, which is linked to climate change, and focus more on other pollutants, such as mercury, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), which have been other sources of concern at the Indian River Power Plant and for those who live around it.

“We’re trying to pass some legislation by the fall,” Carper told the Coastal Point. “It’s critical that we focus on the other three (pollutants) as well. This is an issue of critical importance.”

In April, Carper introduced the Clean Air Planning Act of 2007 (CAPA), which is an improved version of clean air legislation he has introduced in previous Congresses. The 2007 version of CAPA, he said, would significantly reduce unhealthy emissions of mercury, as well as the harmful pollutants (NOx and SO2) that produce smog and acid rain. In addition, the legislation would set up a mandatory cap-and-trade program for utilities to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming.

“For far too long, political wrangling has prevented the Congress from passing clean air legislation. But times have changed, and now a majority of Americans want us to find new and better ways to clean up the air we breathe while also doing something to combat global warming. The time for us to act is now,” Carper said in April.

Carper’s clean air bill would:

• Cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82 percent by 2015. The acid-rain causing pollution would be cut from today’s 11 million tons to a cap of 2 million tons in 2015.

• Cut emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 68 percent by 2015. Ozone pollution would be cut from today’s 5 million tons to a cap of 1.6 million tons in 2015.

• Cut mercury emissions at each power plant by 90 percent in 2015. This is a stringent, yet achievable, goal, he said, to greatly reduce the risks this neurotoxin poses to children and pregnant women.

• Implement a cap-and-trade program to reduce CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions would be capped at today’s levels in 2012 and 2001 levels in 2015. After 2015, power plants would then reduce CO2 emissions annually where, by 2050, emission levels would be at least 25 percent below 1990 levels.

Although CAPA only covers pollution from electric power plants, Carper said his legislation tracks with the goal of writing an economy-wide global warming bill that also addresses the transportation sector and industrial sources. Carper said this bill could be folded into a larger comprehensive bill or it could move separately if it becomes too difficult to forge consensus around an economy-wide bill.

Carper warned that Congress shouldn’t enact global warming legislation unless it also addresses the inadequacies of the current rules governing power-plant emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.

“The bottom line is, this year, as we in Congress begin to develop an economy-wide solution to global warming, it’s imperative that we simultaneously enact stricter caps on the mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide emitted from power plants nationwide. It makes no sense to force power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but accept the status quo on these other dangerous pollutants. We get more bang for our buck by addressing these four pollutants at the same time,” Carper said.