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COL P-B poll didn't test everything that's in the air

The results of a P-B-commissioned poll published last week offered some insight into how people feel about the two most divisive issues in Olmsted County these days.

But here's a question I wish the pollsters had asked: Which is more important to you, pollution-free outdoor air, or smoke-free restaurant air?

I'm no expert on polls, but I'm pretty sure the vast majority would have said clean outdoor breathing space is more important. After all, you can control where you eat, but you can't control the quality of the air you breathe when you step outside.

This gets at the heart of a crucial element that's been missing from the long, combative debate over whether the Dakota, Minnesota &; Eastern Railroad should be permitted to send coal trains through Rochester and other cities. When it comes right down to it, air quality should be a primary factor. But up to this point, it's been virtually ignored.

The fact is, most of the electricity we use to cook our food, light our homes and keep Mayo's X-ray and MRI machines working is generated at power plants fueled by coal. And those plants are leading producers of pollution. They spew into the air tons of toxic gases and metals that have been proven to cause or aggravate ailments ranging from asthma, heart and lung disease to low birth weights.

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This point was driven home in the results of a 20-year study in the Journal of the American Medical Association published last week. They showed that long-term exposure to air pollution in America's cities is just as dangerous as living with a smoker.

And here's the worst part. We aren't immune from the air pollution problem here in crystal clear southeastern Minnesota. In fact, we're right in the thick of it.

A study commissioned in 2000 by the Izaak Walton League and other environmental groups concluded that Rochester's air was more polluted than that in Minneapolis. That's largely a result of the city's ancient Silver Lake Power plant, which is fueled by -- you guessed it -- coal.

We've made a conscious decision in this country, from Capitol Hill on down, to continue our reliance on coal as a power source. Thus, we have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Those consequences include growing rates of respiratory disease, and endangerment of wildlife and the environment where coal is gouged from the earth. And, yes, we have to be prepared to deal with more and more coal trains speeding through cities like Rochester.

I applaud those who worked so hard to get the county's restaurant smoking ban enacted. It only made sense that a health-minded county such as Olmsted would lead the way.

But why haven't we heard from those same people on the coal issue?

Mayo and the city of Rochester say they oppose the DM&E; coal train project because it will impede traffic, disrupt sensitive medical equipment, slow emergency response vehicles and, most importantly, dissuade people from choosing Mayo for their medical needs.

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These are all valid concerns. But they are mere symptoms of a far deeper problem that our nation refuses to address -- our continuing reliance on polluting, depletable fossil fuels.

Rochester and Mayo have so far spent hundreds of thousands of dollars waging a legal and lobbying battle against the DM&E.; And maybe it has been well spent. Time will tell. But why has so little money and effort been expended to persuade Congress and our president that the country must begin weaning itself from coal. That it must promote and develop renewable energy sources such as wind and biomass. That it must make a decision on the long-term fate of nuclear energy.

You could argue that steering our country's energy policy in a different direction is an impossible challenge. But there are those who once thought it was impossible for the nation's most populous state to clear all of its restaurants and bars of tobacco smoke. And there are those who thought a countywide restaurant smoking ban here would never fly.

But the state of California and Olmsted County, largely through the efforts of determined medical professionals, made it happen. These same people need to play a stronger role in ridding our nation of pollution-belching power plants.

Only then will the coal trains go away.

Greg Sellnow is the Post-Bulletin's weekend editor. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com.

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