Protecting the Coal Supply Chain: Planning for the Next Flu Pandemic

by John M. Powers, online editor

I was a resident advisor, or RA, when I was in college. I went to a little school in New England with only a few thousand students, so being an RA usually consisted of little more than walking around and making sure everything was quiet—not an exciting job. But one night, that changed.

It was just after spring break and there’d been rumors about some students having brought back a bad case of food poisoning from Mexico, but it was barely a blip on the radar screen of student safety.

One night that week, I was on duty walking around my dorm 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 to take the resident to the hospital. Before the car got there, two more students showed up complaining of the same symptoms. So we sent all three to the emergency room.

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. It got to the point that we’d sent nearly all of our campus cops to the hospital with their cruisers full of sick students.

We called the rest of the dorms, and they were having the same problems. Ambulances started showing up all over campus. It seemed like everyone was getting sick that night, and we were quickly overwhelmed. We didn’t have enough transportation or even a good transportation plan. We weren’t qualified to take care of anyone. Then the hospital sent word that they were getting 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, sick students filled a line of ambulances and school buses one after another for transport to the hospital.

This all happened within hours. It’s a testament to how quickly a microorganism can overcome a community. Our response was as good as it could have been, but we didn’t have a plan. Who knows what would have happened if it had been anything more than a stomach bug?

You’re probably wondering what my little outbreak story has to do with utilities. Well, it’s a small version of what could happen to utilities in the case of a flu pandemic. Health officials agree that another flu pandemic is inevitable, and utilities are not ready, even though they will be essential to the response. Before we start talking about what utilities must do to prepare for the next flu pandemic, let’s lay a foundation.

First, a pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of disease. In this case, 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? I asked Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, what the chances are for a flu pandemic.

-One hundred percent, Osterholm said. -Pandemics are like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis: They occur. We’ve had 10 of them in the last 300 years. They date all the way back to antiquity. ” Hippocrates wrote about them. So, these are reoccurring events; these are not discretionary.

Most recently, there was the pandemic of 1918 and 1919, a pandemic in the late ’50s, and another in the late ’60s. Basically, we’re about due for one.

And we’re not talking about missing a week of work with a nasty cold. Flu pandemic effects are serious. During a typical year without a pandemic, up to 35,000 people die of the flu just in the United States. With a pandemic, the body count is enormous, Osterholm said.

-In 1918, between 50 (million) and 100 million people died when the world was one-third the population it is today, Osterholm said.

Take that number, imagine the same proportion dying using today’s population, and the number of dead quickly reaches the hundreds of millions worldwide.

Think about the effect that would have on every aspect of society. Travel—at the very least, international travel—would most likely shut down, along with the import and export of goods. Hospitals would be critically understaffed. What about city workers who maintain sewer systems? If they’re not there to do their jobs, we’d have even more health problems. Businesses would lose money and close. One study estimates the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) would lose $4.4 trillion. But something particular about our global economy would make a flu pandemic worse than they’ve been.

-There’s a whole lot of other areas that we have real problems with, whether it’s pharmaceutical drugs, food supply—any 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.

Enter utilities. 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, he said.

So much so that it’s easy to forget that electricity has played, and still plays, a crucial role in public health.

To illustrate, Osterholm described how in 1900, the No. 1 cause of death in Minneapolis for children under 1 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, 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.

How can utilities prepare? 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 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, he said.

Osterholm encourages pandemic preparedness, especially for utilities. The coal supply is where utilities are most vulnerable, thanks to the lack of planning and the just-in-time economy, he said. 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.

Osterholm and Nicholas Kelley, a doctoral student and research assistant at CIDRAP, released a November 2008 report outlining how vulnerable U.S. coal supply lines are, what effect that would have on the nation during a pandemic and what utilities and governments must do to ensure that critical component of society is not devastated by the next pandemic.

The report outlines four recommendations for pandemic planning. First, utilities must plan for a disruption in the coal supply chain, and second, develop strategies to respond to disruptions in electrical service. Worker absenteeism will occur during a pandemic, so utilities will need plans to ensure that coal supplies get delivered and that there will be workers to take care of all normal electricity disruptions that occur because of equipment failure and bad weather.

This feeds into the third recommendation involving local and state governments, and the feds. The report recommends that coal miners and workers in supporting industries such as transportation be given the highest priority for 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 people in supporting industries are not assigned a tier. That needs to change, Osterholm said.

A problem exists with vaccines, though. A flu vaccine covers several strains of influenza, but there’s no way to predict which strain will cause a pandemic. 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 must start before the offending strain can be isolated and vaccines manufactured, he said.

-We do have some limited H5N1 vaccine. We don’t know how well it would work because it’s based on a previous strain. ” They could potentially be talking about vaccinating 20 (million) or more million people. So what we’re saying is that some of these people surely should be the miners and the supply chain people to keep the coal supply running, Osterholm said. -Now, if it’s another strain other than H5N1 ” we wouldn’t have any vaccine and we’d be starting from scratch. And it’d be a minimum of three to four months before we’d have (a) vaccine.

During those three to four months before a new vaccine could be made, the only thing to do for infected workers or workers in infected areas would be to put them on antiviral drugs, Osterholm said.

None of Osterholm’s recommendations stand alone. They must be taken as a whole, and they need more than just utilities involved. For example, state governments would be able to 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. And here, there’s another recommendation.

The fourth recommendation is to build coal stocks. 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. Osterholm expects some disruption in getting coal to power plants, so having a stockpile is practical, he said. This is even more important because there is no way to anticipate a pandemic’s duration.

-One of the things we want to do, first of all, is put all these recommendations in place together. So if we minimize the impact to coal mining and transportation, that right there is going to be a big plus, Osterhold said. -Second of all, 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. ” So we’re not looking at any one of these in isolation. 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.

Nowhere in this planning 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 the industry needs to implement, Osterholm said.

-Never have I ever thought that we could (have) business as usual. This has always been about just getting through it, he said. -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.

The small pox virus can be excluded as an effective bioweapon because there are enough small pox vaccinations for the world, Osterhold said. Such a vaccine does not exist for influenza, however, meaning that mitigating the pandemic’s effects is the best the industry can do.

-It’d be like saying, “ËœCan we stop the flood? No. Then what can we do to minimize its impact?’ Osterholm said.

No one has to be afraid if he or she takes steps to prepare, Osterholm said.

Imagine a line numbered from 1 to 10. In the middle at 5, imagine a power plant. Now imagine that right of the power plant—from 5 to 10—are transmission lines, distribution lines, substations and end users. Osterholm said that pandemic preparation has been done to protect that part of the grid. It’s the upstream part—Nos. 1 through 4 on our number line—that no one has prepared for a pandemic. He and his CIDRAP colleagues consider those parts most critical, Osterholm said.

-(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, he said.

No one is to blame for the lack of planning; the industry and government simply haven’t considered it, Osterholm said.

-If I had said to you 10 years ago, “ËœI 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, Osterholm said. -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 “ËœHow 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 Boy Scouting, -Be prepared.

To see the coal supply chain report by Nicholas Kelley and Dr. Michael Osterholm and more on pandemic planning, visit CIDRAP’s Web site, Also, Edison Electric Institute offers pandemic-planning information at You may also visit the EL&P Web page for episode 13 of Currents: The Energy News Podcast, where several helpful links are listed.


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