If pollution controls are not strictly adhered to, President Carter's plan to switch the nation's industries to coal could result in annual contamination of the atmosphere with 10 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 600 million tons of carbon dioxide and as much nitrogen oxides as the country's 110 million cars exhaust, a White House document reveals.
Changing over to coal could also mean release of untold tons of soot, which among other things contain a chemical called benzopyrene - identified as one of the main carcinogens in cigarette smoke. Typical C4, American coal also contains breathable bits of 14 toxic metals, including lead and arsenic. Finally, the amount of coal President Carter wants industry to convert to would contain enough of isotopes of radium and thorium to possibly contaminate the air with more radioactivity than all the working nuclear power plants in the United States do today.
"No matter how you look at it," said John F. O'Leary, administrator of the Federal Energy Administration and the man who will direct coal conversions for President Carter, "a coal-fired plant is more hazardous to health than a nuclear-fired plant."
In a document still not released by the White House, the Office of Energy Policy and Planning estimates that by 1985 the President's plan to convert factories and power plants to coal will involve the bruning of an additional 200 million tons of coal a year.
The document indicates that the White House would accept pollution control standards that would result in more than half the anticipated soot and sulphur dioxide exhaust being scrubbed out.
It is possible, although expensive, to eliminate more than three-quarters of these pollutants.
Cities, states and the Environmental Protection Agency could enforce higher pollution standards.
President Carter plans to force most of these coal conversions, asking for legislation to prohibit new factories from burning oil or natural gas, to tax old factories that continue to burn oil and natural gas and give tax rebates to those voluntarily turning to coal.
The White House estimates it can force conversions to coal that will save the equivalent of 3.3 million barrels of oil a day.
And while the White House concedes that reluctant industries will pay as much as $40 billion in taxes the next eight years to keep burning oil and gas, it also claims the rest of industry will receive $8 billion in tax rebates for investing in coal.
The White House document also concedes that the cost of converting to coal will be steep because it will involve installing scrubbers to remove some soot and sulfur from coal's exhaust gases. But the White House claims the factories putting in the scrubbers will get their money back in tax rebates.
The document also notes solid waste disposal problems. At an average-sized (one million kilowatt) coal-fired electric plant, ash accumulates at the rate of 30 pounds a second.
This compares with the year-long wastes of a nuclear-fired plant which, although extremely toxic, fill a volume of two cubic meters, according to Dr. Bernard L. Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh. A volume of two cubic meters would fit under a dining room table.
Finally, the White House says that while conversions to coal will be expensive the price of coal will be low enough to keep electric rates down. The White House estimates that coal conversions will result in only a 2.5 per cent increase in electric rates in the U.S. over the next eight years.
The technical problems in removing nitrogen oxides regulations have not been set for these exhaust products, according to the document. It also notes that carbon dioxide, an inevitable pollutant of coal, does no harm to health but it does build up in the atmosphere in a way that can raise the earth's temperature over the next 50 years.
That still leaves the questions of radioactivity and toxic metal exhaust, which are far more difficult to control in a coal burning plant than sulfur and soot exhausts.
A Clark University study estimated that when coal plants are located near large cities the exposure to radioactivity is 50 times greater than for nuclear plants the same size.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said last year "there is some uncertainty" about whether toxic metals can be controlled in coal exhausts. It listed 14 toxic metals in coal exhausts: arsenic, antimony, cadmium, lead, selenium, manganese, thallium, beryllium, chromium, nickel, titanium, zinc, molybdenum and cobalt.