Depending on whom you talk to, those tall stacks jutting out of the north Omaha landscape are either part of a safe operation that's keeping your electricity rates down — or a health menace making its neighbors sick.
For more than a year, a small but vocal group of environmental and community activists has been pressing the Omaha Public Power District to stop burning coal at its North Omaha Station.
They say the 59-year-old plant, along the Missouri River a couple of miles south of the Mormon Bridge, is pumping out sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants that they believe are linked to higher-than-average rates of asthma in northeast Omaha.
OPPD, however, says it has kept up with increasingly restrictive rules about pollution and doesn't believe the plant can be linked to health problems.
District officials say the coal opponents will soon have their way. Tighter federal restrictions will mean that the plant will stop burning coal — or dramatically reduce its coal operations — by 2016.
But for now, with the troubled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station still offline, OPPD says it can't afford to cut off a power source that produces 18 percent of the district's overall capacity.
“They want us to make a decision today,” said Tim Burke, OPPD's vice president of customer service and public affairs. “And what we're saying is we'll make a decision as soon as we get the best information to make a decision.”
Though some activists have raised concerns about the plant's impact on natural resources, much of the recent focus has been on public health. Several people have become regular attendees at OPPD board meetings and have organized demonstrations outside the utility's headquarters.
Graham Jordison, an organizer with the Sierra Club, came to Omaha about a year ago to gather support for shutting down the plant. He said he's found an increasing level of interest from people who hadn't spoken up in the past.
Jordison said his group is particularly concerned that the plant may cause harm to an area of Omaha that has high levels of poverty and unemployment. He pointed to a report from the NAACP finding that coal plants are typically in areas home to poor people and minorities.
The report ranks the north Omaha plant as No. 17 of 378 on its list of coal plant “environmental justice offenders” around the country.
“From a health perspective, the issue isn't that they're burning coal, it's where they're burning coal,” Jordison said.
Sharif Liwaru, president of the north Omaha-based Malcolm X Foundation, agrees. He said his group isn't focused on environmental issues but sees the plant as a big enough threat to get involved.
“(Coal plants are) in urban communities, poor communities,” he said. “Folks that don't have the options to move wherever they'd like to. Just to have something like that in our community is a concern to us.”
The Sierra Club says pollution from coal plants has links to increased rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
A study from the Omaha Asthma Alliance, led by state and county health researchers and the American Lung Association, found that northeast Omaha has the highest level of asthma-related deaths and hospitalizations in the area.
But OPPD says the NAACP's report doesn't fully connect the dots. Burke said groups like the NAACP and the Sierra Club have tied together data about low-income communities and pollution without showing a definitive link. He said OPPD has looked for formal studies about north Omaha but hasn't found any.
It can be difficult to draw a line between coal plant emissions and local health problems without a formal epidemiological study, said Chandran Achutan, an associate professor in the University of Nebraska Medical Center's college of public health.
More detailed research that takes into account combination effects from multiple chemicals, exposure routes and other factors would clarify the extent of the relationship, he said.
Achutan, a former CDC scientist who has examined air quality issues as part of his research on occupational health, said he and some colleagues want to study the health of people who live near the North Omaha Station.
OPPD said it goes to great lengths to ensure that the plant isn't putting out levels of pollution that could harm neighbors.
In the decades the plant has been up and running, the district has updated its emission controls, again and again. Officials note that the plant switched to a more clean-burning coal, from Wyoming's Powder River Basin, nearly three decades ago.
The plant has dropped its sulfur dioxide emissions by 39 percent since 1980 and cut its nitrogen oxide emissions by 41 percent since 1996. It captures ash — which officials are quick to note is not soot — in a contained process and recycles most of it. OPPD says it collects about 99 percent of the particles created by burning coal.
The district sends regular reports to state and federal regulators, who ensure that the air quality doesn't drop below required standards. Those agencies also get data from separate monitors run by Douglas County.
The department's monitor at 1616 Whitmore St., less than a mile from the plant, samples the air for sulfur dioxide at hourly intervals, then reports the results to the EPA.
Monitoring data show a three-year average for sulfur dioxide concentrations at 65 parts per billion, under the federal standard of 75 ppb, said Russ Hadan, a scientist who oversees laboratory work for the County Health Department.
“As of now, according to the EPA standard, there is not a human health risk,” Hadan said.
Still, the plant, at least in its current form, won't be around much longer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of implementing its first-ever standards for power plants that emit mercury, arsenic and metals. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards deadline is 2015, but OPPD has been granted a one-year extension that officials said is needed to make improvements.
Burke said the district isn't sure whether it will convert some or all of the plant to natural gas or shut it down. He said critics of coal don't seem to consider the financial implications of a quick shutdown. About 150 people work at the plant, plus outside contractors.
“These are big capital dollars,” he said. “It's a difference between: Do I spend $50 million and do I spend $500 million?”
OPPD remains without Fort Calhoun, the 478.6-megawatt nuclear plant that last produced power in April 2011. Inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are still working to determine whether the plant has completed hundreds of tasks and improvements that show it can operate safely, and no restart date has been set.
Officials said losing the north Omaha plant, which has a capacity of 625 megawatts, would create a major gap that could lead to higher rates. They said they balance the concerns from groups like the Sierra Club and Malcolm X Foundation and people in the community against the prospect of making electricity more expensive.
“Next to food, water and shelter, electricity is a need, not a want,” said Russ Baker, OPPD's manager of environmental and regulatory affairs. “It's not like we're another kind of an industry out there where our product may not be necessary.”
World-Herald staff writer Cody Winchester contributed to this report.