Hello, my name is Stephanie and I am an asthmatic.
Imagine sitting in your cubicle, diligently working, when your boss comes up to ask you a question. You catch a whiff of perfume, and suddenly your breath catches in your throat. You start breathing shallowly, hoping to stop the onslaught of painful, racking coughs that occur when you’re trying to catch your breath. Your boss leaves, you take your quick-acting inhaler, and you spend the next two hours breathing as slowly and as steadily as you can to recover from a minute or two of exposure.
In December, the Twin Cities had a string of bad air quality days. These triggered the worst period of asthma that I’ve ever had. Every day, I struggled to breathe with my daily medications, the same ones that work very well for most people. I took a lot of fast-acting inhalers. I couldn’t walk to my third-floor apartment without breathing hard. My doctor and I couldn’t get my breathing back under control with the most common hard-hitting medications, so in February she sent me on to an asthma specialist. Now I take four (costly) medications morning and night just to get well enough to go about my life. All due to bad air quality days at the wrong time of year.
Here in Minnesota, the majority of our electricity still comes from burning coal, an increasingly expensive way to power our lives, causing bad air quality days like the ones that triggered my asthma. On March 16, Xcel Energy, the electric utility behind the largest polluter in the state, the Sherco plant in Sherburne County, filed its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) of how it will operate for the next 10 to 15 years. Despite people urging Xcel to plan Sherco’s retirement for the last five years, it plans to continue to operate the plant indefinitely. For me and for all Minnesotans who deserve clean air, I urge Xcel to update its plan to transition away from the coal that makes us sick.
The Sherco coal plant is a blight on the map of Minnesota. Data-mapping by the Clean Air Task Force shows Sherco as a big, black dot, marked by deeply troubling statistics. The plant contributes to 90 deaths, 1,600 asthma attacks, and 150 heart attacks a year, 2011 data shows, the most recent year when all current units were operational. How can Xcel Energy be “Responsible by Nature” with statistics like these?
Burning coal at Sherco drives the worst of Minnesota’s carbon pollution, a main contributor to climate disruption and extreme weather. But rather than creating a transition plan for Sherco, Xcel continues to dig in its heels by operating this outdated plant. We know that soon Sherco will not be able to keep up with new pollution safeguards. We know that costly retrofits for old technology are wasteful and irresponsible. We know that cleaner, cheaper energy options are available. We know that people like me with asthma don’t suffer health impacts from wind turbines or solar panels. We know that we don’t have to pay to import rays from the sun or the wind, like we do with coal. Renewable energy saves our lungs and our pocketbooks. So why does Xcel keep pouring more money into Sherco when there are lower-cost (not to mention healthier) options for the long term?
And these aren’t the only impacts to consider. The local economy is also important. Its longtime presence in the community means Xcel should responsibly plan to help the people of Becker transition to a life beyond coal.
It’s time to choose the brighter, more responsible future. It’s time to plan to retire the remaining coal-burning units at Sherco, to show that we care about the people in our present and in our future.
It’s time to show that we care about the effects of coal pollution and decide that we’re done breathing unsafe air.
Stephanie Spitzer is a knitter, volunteer and member of the Sierra Club, and asthmatic shuffling around Minneapolis with her mouth covered against the cold in winter.
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