Online exclusive — Protecting the coal supply chain: Planning for the next flu pandemic

by John M. Powers, online editor

I went to a little school in New England with only a few thousand students, so my job as an RA usually consisted of little more than walking around and making sure everything was quiet. Not an exciting job.

One night that week, it all changed. I was on duty when a resident came to me and said he was sick and needed to go to the hospital. I called our campus cops, and they sent a car over to take the resident to the hospital. Before the car got there, two more students showed up complaining of the same symptoms.

No sooner had we sent those first few people to the hospital when two more very sick people showed up, then three more, then two more. Then ambulances started showing up all over campus. It seemed like everyone was getting sick that night, and we were quickly overwhelmed. The hospital even sent word they were overwhelmed.

Eventually, we had to set up a triage in my dorm to separate the ill from the very ill. Hundreds of students lined up, doubled over sick, waiting to see the team of nurses the hospital had sent. And outside, a line of ambulances and school busses were filled one after another with sick students for transport to the hospital.

This all happened within a matter of hours. It’s a testament to how quickly a tiny microorganism can overcome a community. Our response was as good as it could have been, but we didn’t have a plan in place. And without a plan, who knows what would have happened if it had been anything more than what turned out to be a stomach bug.

You’re probably wondering what my little outbreak story has to do with utilities. It’s a very small version of what could happen to utilities in the case of a flu pandemic. Health officials are in agreement that another flu pandemic is inevitable, and utilities are not ready for it, even though they will be absolutely essential to the response to such a disaster.

What is a pandemic and what will happen?

First off, a pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of disease, and for the purposes of our discussion, when we say pandemic, we’re talking about a worldwide outbreak of influenza.

You might be asking yourself why flu is the pandemic we need to worry about. Why not anthrax, Ebola, or some other nasty thing? Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota (CIDRAP), stated that our chances of a flu pandemic are “one hundred percent. Pandemics are like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis: they occur…They date all the way back to antiquity… Hippocrates wrote about them. So, these are reoccurring events. These are not discretionary.”

There’ve actually been 10 flu pandemics in the last 300 years. Most recently, there was the pandemic of 1918 and 1919, a pandemic in the late 1950s, and another in the late sixties. Basically, we’re about due for one.

And we’re not talking about people being out of work for a week with a nasty cold. The effects of a flu pandemic are serious. In a typical year, without a pandemic, up to 35,000 people die of the flu in the United States. With a pandemic, the body count is enormous. “In 1918 between 50 and 100 million people died when the world was one third the population it is today,” Dr. Osterholm said. Take that number, imagine the same proportion dying but with today’s population, and the number of deceased reaches the hundreds of millions worldwide pretty fast.

But deaths aren’t the only thing to take notice of in a pandemic. Think about the effect that would have on every aspect of our society: travel, hospitals, city workers. Businesses would lose money and close. In fact, one study estimated the world’s GDP would lose $4.4 trillion. But there’s something particular about our global economy that would make a pandemic even worse than they’ve been in the past: We don’t store things.

“[A]ny number of things are going to be severely challenged during the next pandemic, even if it’s only a moderate pandemic because it’s overlaid for the first time in human history on a global just-in-time economy,” Osterholm said. “Even for you today, many of the things that you’ll use, that you just take for granted in your life, come from some distant shore, and it just gets to you in time” You don’t realize when you go buy that [thing] at the store that [it] hasn’t been sitting around in a warehouse somewhere. That hasn’t been on the shelf for a long time.”

And this is where utilities enter the picture. Dr. Osterholm explained why it is crucial that utilities plan for the next pandemic: “First of all, it’s going to happen. Second of all is electricity’s obviously an extremely critical part of our basic infrastructure and response mechanism” we typically take electricity for granted.” So much so that it’s easy to forget that electricity has played, and still plays, a crucial role in public health.

To illustrate, Dr. Osterholm described how in 1900 the number one cause of death in Minneapolis for children under the age of one was typhoid fever, largely associated with unsafe water. Electricity allowed the creation of water pumps, which allowed the creation of city water supplies, which in turn created sewage systems.

“That’s a very basic foundation of public health, and you don’t even think about it,” Dr. Osterholm said. “If electricity doesn’t exist, you don’t have that. You don’t have refrigeration. You don’t have plants that can make vaccines. You start thinking about all the basic aspects of response or preparedness [and] every one of them come[s] back to the ability of electricity” The collateral damage that’ll occur to our society trying to respond to a pandemic if we have a challenge keeping the lights on will be one that I can’t even begin to imagine.”

What’s the plan?

So what can utilities do to be prepared? At this point, don’t look to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the rest of the federal government for too much. There have been some moves made for preparedness on the part of the government but, in Dr. Osterholm’s view, they’ve missed the most important aspect of a solid plan.

“What’s happened is” they forgot all about the fact that energy into generation in the United States was critical. So, that’s the part that they missed,” said Dr. Osterholm.

Dr. Osterholm has long been a champion of pandemic preparedness, especially for utilities, and this is where he says utilities are the most vulnerable thanks to the lack of planning and the just-in-time economy: the coal supply. If we can’t get coal to the plants, we can’t get electricity, which means we can’t manufacture vaccines, run ventilators in hospitals, and so on.

On November 13, 2008, Dr. Osterholm and Nicholas Kelley, a doctoral student and research assistant at CIDRAP, released a report outlining how vulnerable the nation’s coal supply lines are, what effect that would have on the nation during a pandemic, and what utilities and governments need to do to make sure that critical component of our society is not devastated in the next pandemic.

The report outlines four recommendations for pandemic planning:

1.) and 2.) Utilities need to plan for a disruption in the coal supply chain and in electrical service. Worker absenteeism will occur during a pandemic, so a utility will need a plan in place to make sure coal supplies get where they need to go, and that there will be workers in place to take care of all of the normal disruptions in electricity that occur all the time due to things like equipment failure and bad weather.

3.) Coal miners and workers in the supporting industries, like transportation, should be given the highest priority when it comes to vaccine allocation. The federal government has a vaccine allocation plan that prioritizes who gets the flu vaccine first. For example, the military is in tier 1. Electric utility workers are in tier 2. But coal miners and the people in the supporting industries are not assigned any tier at the moment and that’s something Dr. Osterholm says needs to change.

However, there’s a problem with vaccines. A flu vaccine covers several different strains of influenza, but there’s no way to predict which flu strain will cause a pandemic. So the vaccines the government has stockpiled now, which are based on a strain called H5N1, may be ineffective against the pandemic strain if it isn’t H5N1. The hard thing about getting a vaccine is that the pandemic has to start before the offending strain can be isolated and vaccines manufactured. That would cause a lag of three to four months before a new vaccine would be ready. According to Dr. Osterholm, the only thing to do for infected workers or workers in infected areas would be to put them on antiviral drugs during that time.

4.) Coal stocks need to be built. That is, the amount of coal a plant keeps on hand for peaks during the summer, needs to be the new, year round minimum stock. Dr. Osterholm said we have to expect that there will be some disruption in being able to get coal to power plants, so having a stockpile is a practical thing to do. This is even more important when you consider that there will be no way to anticipate how long the pandemic will last.

“There is no way to know [how long a pandemic will last]” if you have some buffer with [an] increased stockpile — even if we have some reduction in mining and transportation — you’ve got enough to buffer you” I mean, if the entire coal industry went down for weeks to months” a stock pile of 90 days isn’t necessarily going to get you through,” said Dr. Osterholm.

It’s important to mention here that none of Dr. Osterholm’s recommendations stand alone. They need to be taken as a whole, and they need more than just utilities involved. For example, state governments would be able to either help or mandate that antiviral drugs be stockpiled for use by workers in the coal supply chain. Still, the industry can’t exclusively depend on a stockpile of vaccines or antiviral drugs to save the supply chain. They have to build their coal stocks and make sure they’ve planned for the inevitable disruptions the pandemic will cause within their workflow.

You may have noticed that nowhere in this discussion have we mentioned that utilities and coal companies will be able to avoid the pandemic. And that’s because they can’t. Mitigating the effects of the pandemic is the strategy Dr. Osterholm says the industry needs to implement.

“Never have I ever though that we could [have] business as usual. This has always been about just getting through it,” said Dr. Osterholm. “We’re not going to be in a position of making pandemic influenza go away or just be a minor problem. We just can’t do that.”

Dr. Osterholm explained that the small pox virus can be excluded as an effective bioweapon because there are enough small pox vaccinations “for the world.” However, such a vaccine does not exist for influenza meaning that mitigating the effects of a pandemic is the best the industry can do.

“It’d be like saying, ‘Can we stop the flood? No. Then what can we do to minimize its impact,'” Dr. Osterholm said.

With all this talk about a pandemic and how we can’t do anything to stop it, it’s hard not to be a little defeated and perhaps a lot scared. But Dr. Osterholm cautioned that no one has to be afraid if they take the steps to prepare.

Imagine a number line, numbered from 1 to 10. In the middle of the line, at number 5, imagine a power plant. Now imagine that stretching out to the right of the power plant, from 5 to 10, are transmission lines, distribution lines, substations, and end users. Dr. Osterholm pointed out that the work that’s been done to prepare for a pandemic has been done to protect this part of the grid. It’s the “upstream” part, numbers 1 through 4 on our number line analogy, that haven’t been taken care of and are the parts that Dr. Osterholm and his colleagues at CIDRAP say are the most critical.

“[B]ecause if coal goes down, the rest of it’s meaningless. You don’t need to have linemen. You don’t need to have generation people if you don’t have enough coal to keep the system running where coal is the primary source of energy,” said Dr. Osterholm.

He pointed out that it isn’t as if someone is to blame for the lack of planning. It’s simply that the industry and the government haven’t considered it. Dr. Osterholm offered this analogy:

“If I had said to you ten years ago, ‘I can bring down the world trade center towers with box cutters,’ you’d have looked at me like I was nuts. Yet, you know what? It’s that lack of creative imagination that gets us in a lot of problems. Because, in fact, it was box cutters that brought down the World Trade Center towers. It was just a few steps upstream. By those box cutters taking out those pilots and flight attendants, they could take the plane and use it as a bomb to blow up the World Trade Center towers. We need the same kind of a mindset here. What can we do with creative imagination to anticipate and make sure it doesn’t happen?… This doesn’t have to be Chicken Little. This is just practical” It’s, ‘How do you keep box cutters out of the hands of terrorists who might be on airplanes?'”

A little preparation can go a long way. As they say in Scouting, “Be prepared.”


To see the coal supply chain report by Nicholas Kelley and Dr. Osterholm, and for much more on pandemic planning, you can visit CIDRAP’s website here. Also, visit these websites for more information on planning for a pandemic:

Edison Electric Institute
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Department of Energy (pdf)
U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Editor’s note: This article is an abbreviated version of a story that can be heard in it’s entirety on Current: The Energy News Podcast, found here.

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