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Thermoelectric plants, toxic air factories

By Manuel Hernández Borbolla*

Una planta eléctrica en La Paz, Baja California Sur

Power plants burn fossil fuels that contribute to air pollution in the city of La Paz. (Photo: Alejandro Bermúdez).


This city lives up to its name. Its tranquility is noticeable both in the streets and the calm waters of the bay.

Perhaps for this reason, it has become a favorite tourist destination for many vacationers looking for sport fishing, whale watching and other similar activities.

The situation would be unbeatable if not for one problem: the highly toxic air breathed every day.

Air pollution is particularly noticeable in the mornings, when brown haze covers the city of La Paz, caused by fine airborne soils and the burning of fossil fuels for automobiles and for the power plants that surround the city.

In recent decades, air pollution has become a public health problem that is getting worse each year and contributes to diseases such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and lung cancer.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that 14,734 people in Mexico were killed in 2011 by diseases related to poor air quality.

And even though air pollution has become a growing concern for some parts of the city’s population, there is no official data on air quality.

This is demonstrated in the 2011-2013 Action Plan developed jointly by the International Community Foundation (ICF), the private sector, local government, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

However, data reported by scientists reveal the situation could be more serious than previously thought.

According to a study by Dr. Jeanette Murillo, a researcher at the Marine Sciences Interdisciplinary Center at the National Polytechnic Institute, the air breathed every day in La Paz contains high concentrations of carcinogenic elements such as sulfur, mercury, lead, titanium, and vanadium.

After installing devices to measure air quality at various points in La Paz, Murillo found that concentrations of toxic elements far exceed the maximum limits recommended by WHO and the regulations of both Mexico and the United States.

Sulfur dioxide at all monitoring stations showed levels of 202-783 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3), well above the 0.106 mg/m3 permitted by WHO and the Official Mexican Standard (0.010 mg/m3).

The same applies to mercury levels of up to 19 mg/ m3 found at four stations, amounts greater than allowed by the U. S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (10 mg/ m3). Concentrations of lead were also high, reaching 52 mg/ m3 at one station, well above the limit established by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (0.15 mg/ m3). Mercury and lead are two elements that are not regulated in Mexico.

In the case of titanium, the levels in some samples (as high as 85 mg/ m3) were four times the limit (equivalent to 20 mg/ m3) allowed by Mexican environmental law

With vanadium, a highly toxic element which can cause lung cancer if inhaled, the situation was even worse, because records at all stations reached levels of up to 127 mg/ m3, two hundred times more than permitted by the U. S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (0.5 mg/ m3). In Mexico this element is not regulated.

The study concludes that these concentrations are caused by the stirring up of soil particles by vehicles and wind early in the day as well as the weathering of rocks and ash emissions from the two fossil fuel-fired power plants that operate on the periphery of the city: the Punta Prieta thermoelectric plant and the Combustión Interna power plant, operated by the Federal Electricity Commission.

These plants are charged with supplying power to both La Paz and Los Cabos, the main tourist area of the state of Baja California Sur.

The region has the highest growth rate for electricity demand in the nation, according to the Program for Construction and Investment in the Electricity Sector, being carried out by the Mexican government.

Energy demand grows in proportion to the urban sprawl of La Paz and poses a double problem for the local economy. On the one hand, energy is required for the operation of hotels and air conditioning systems in hot weather, while on the other, the side effects of generating electricity are slowly strangling the municipal government’s treasury.

Data from the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) indicate that the economic and social costs of the Punta Prieta thermoelectric plant amount to US$1 million, derived in part from the costs of climate change, the impacts on biodiversity, and diseases associated with poor air quality.

According to the IDB, the generation of electricity is the main problem for sustainability in La Paz, due to the anticipated increase in demand, which is predicted to be close to 6 percent a year.

"These patterns of generation and demand are worrying because the development model the city is betting on is based on tourism," said the agency in the analysis "La Paz, Sustainable City," created as part of its program of Emerging and Sustainable Cities.

For this reason, civil and business organizations pushed forward the renewable power project Aura Solar I, the first large power plant in the country to run on solar energy.

The plant was connected to the network in November 2013, and seeks to satisfy part of the energy demand of one of the regions with the highest solar radiation on the planet.

"The energy needs must be met in conformity with international norms for turning toward a low-carbon economy. The issue is not how to generate more energy, because it has already been shown that far from being sustainable this has caused major environmental and social consequences," says Agustín Bravo, coordinator of the Northwest office of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.

For environmental specialist Bravo, the problem of negative economic and social effects caused by power generation comes from a development model that is not very sustainable, similar to what is happening with the tourism real estate model applied in Baja California Sur, which has failed in other parts of the world, for example in Spain.

According to a study by the ICF, most tourists to La Paz come to appreciate the environment, and for the sense of community and tranquility that exists in the region, which seems to pose a conflict with the model of mass, high-end tourism which is exploding in Baja California Sur.

So those like Bravo consider it necessary to make basic structural changes to introduce sustainable development as a common practice in public administration.

While the Inter-American Development Bank has promoted their first project of the Emerging and Sustainable Cities of Mexico program in La Paz, the preliminary analysis indicates that there is still a long way to go, both when it comes to energy issues and to the management of water and solid waste. Improving economic competitiveness, public transport, public policy, accountability, and efficient management of public resources also require much effort.

As long as the development model is not changed and renewable energy sources do not prove to be ready to support the region’s steadily growing energy demand, the people of La Paz will have to get used to breathing toxic air and hope that tourists do not end up fleeing to another destination in order to safeguard their health.

*Independent environmental journalist