An influenza pandemic could turn out the lights in large parts of the U.S. where coal-fired power plants predominate, according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP).

 “Despite regional differences in coal usage,” says the report, "Pandemic Influenza, Electricity, and the Coal Supply Chain,"  “a pandemic is likely to break the links in the coal supply chain, thus disrupting electrical generation. This has the potential to severely endanger the bulk electrical power system in most of the United States.” Today, says the study by CIDRAP researchers Nicholas Kelley and Michael Osterholm, federal preparedness plans for natural disasters do not look at how a flu pandemic could disrupt coal supplies and lead to power shortages if workers are unable to supply coal to generating plants.

Uninterrupted Coal Supply Essential to Health

When it comes to a flu pandemic, the researchers note, “An effective overall and public health response depends largely on the availability of electricity. Preventing disruptions in the coal supply chain is paramount, and such an effort will certainly require financial investment.” Yet today’s federal and state government pandemic response plans, the report explains, do not identify coal miners and the people who support the coal mining and delivery infrastructure as priorities for receiving antiviral drugs, vaccines, and other critical products and services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says of pandemic flu: “Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person. Currently, there is no pandemic flu.”

The most serious pandemic flu episode, notes the HHS, came in three waves in 1918 and 1919. The virulently infective virus, known as the “Spanish flu,” rapidly spread around the world, killing an estimated 50 million people over 18 months worldwide. The “Asian flu” in 1957–1958 killed an estimated 70,000 people in the U.S. The 1968–1969 “Hong Kong flu” killed some 30,000 in the U.S. Influenza experts have been keeping their fingers crossed, and promoting flu shots, ever since.

CIDRAP said that the increasing importance of Powder River Basin coal contributes to the flu pandemic vulnerability. Most of the coal is rail-hauled to markets in the East. The report notes that a pair of 2005 derailments show what a serious disruption in coal could mean. “By September 2005,” said the report, “many power plants were down to less than 10 days of coal in their stockpile, with some reporting only two days of coal on hand. Georgia Power’s giant Scherer plant in Julietta, Ga., was down to two days of burn on the stockpile and bought coal from Indonesia to rebuild the supply.”

Protecting Workers Who Provide the Fuel

What to do? The CIDRAP report suggests four steps that industry and government can take to prepare for the remote, but potentially catastrophic, event of a flu pandemic:

  • Pile up coal at the power plant. What coal plants now accumulate in anticipation of peak loads should become the floor for coal plant inventories. Inventory, of course, is expensive, and state regulators should allow utilities to recover costs of the higher inventories in rates. This plan could be a tough sell in today’s economic climate. In a press release, Osterholm said, “I realize that you can’t ignore the realities of this historic financial crisis, but if we don’t address these issues, we’ll pay a very heavy price at the time of the next pandemic.”
  • Put miners and supporting personnel at the top of the list for pandemic responses. The U.S. government, says the report, “should  assume primary responsibility for ensuring that coal miners and their supporting infrastructure personnel have priority access to antiviral drugs, pandemic vaccines, and other critical products and services (e.g. critical pharmaceutical drugs and food).” The recommendation won a thumbs up from the United Miner Workers of America, the major labor union representing coal miners in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Plan ahead for coal supply chain disruptions. A flu pandemic, says the report, “could require responses beyond what is typically found in business continuity plans—and not currently addressed in national and state disaster management plans.”
  • Look at strategies for responding to service interruptions. “Adverse weather and equipment failures are the most common causes of electrical disruptions,” says the report. “Both will occur during a pandemic—in additional to probably fuel shortages.”

Institutions and individuals concerned with emergency response to flu pandemics targeted the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package as a way to fund their efforts, included in a larger, $16 billion package of public health spending measures. The Trust for America’s Health and the National Association of County and City Health Officials were leading the lobbying for the public health spending. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in early February spoke disparagingly of the flu pandemic spending as an example of items that have no real stimulus effect. Ultimately, according to CIDRAP, no pandemic response spending survived in the final bill that president Obama signed into law in late February

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.