The Costs of Coal
April 14, 2011
This essay is in response to: What is the most important achievement we've gained through air pollution management? What remains to be done to safeguard public health from air pollution?
Energy is essential to our daily lives, and is the
foundation of our modern, industrial society. But fossil fuels, which feed the
energy appetite of our nation and that of most developed nations, cost our
society dearly in terms of health, environmental, and economic impacts.
Coal combustion in particular seems cheap. But there are
billions of dollars in hidden costs to our annual coal consumption. A full cost
accounting of our coal consumption needs to take into account each stage in the
life cycle of coal – extraction, transport, processing, and combustion. An
analysis of the external costs of this full life cycle reveals multiple hazards
for health and the environment, including:
- Death, illness, and disabilities of miners due
to accidents and black lung disease;
- The environmental destruction and watershed
contamination resulting from Mountain Top Removal mining;
- Spills, toxic exposure, property damage, and
injuries due to the thousands of sludge and slurry ponds storing coal
- Poor health in coal-mining regions, with
increased deaths from lung cancer, heart, respiratory, and kidney disease, and higher
rates of reproductive disorders;
- Deaths, air pollution, and the resulting health
consequences from rail transport of coal, which accounts for 70% of total US
- Degraded forests, fisheries, and waterways due
to acid rain and “fertilization” of waterways, both of which are in part due to
nitrogen emissions from coal combustion;
- Groundwater contamination due to inadequate
reclamation of abandoned mine lands;
- Coal’s contribution to climate change and the
resulting health, environmental, and economic impacts, such as a warming
planet, stronger hurricanes, heat waves, flooding, drought, wildfires, food
insecurity, and damage to life support systems.
The life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream
costing the US public between one third and one half a trillion dollars every
Air pollution from coal combustion makes up a significant portion
of those hidden costs. Coal combustion releases CO2,
methane, particulates and oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, mercury, heavy
metals, and carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere. Indeed, coal power is
responsible for most of the US power generation-related emissions of PM2.5
(51%), NOx (35%), and SO2 (85%). These and other coal combustion
pollutants contribute to respiratory illness, heart arrhythmias, infant
mortality, lung cancer, hospitalizations, and asthma exacerbations, among other
major health problems.
The Clean Air Act has acted on these emissions, and our air is
cleaner, and healthier, than it would be without these important regulations in
place. But the EPA air quality standards are not adequately health protective. This
is especially evident in the case of PM2.5. The EPA has set the
annual particulate concentration standard at 15.0 µg/m3, arguing
that there is no evidence for harm below this level. Exposure to these
particles has been epidemiologically linked with increases in all-cause
premature mortality, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary mortality, respiratory
illnesses, hospitalizations, respiratory and lung function symptoms, and school
absences. A reanalysis of the Harvard Six Cities Study, a large US cohort study
on the health effects of air pollution, found little support for EPA’s
assumption that there is a threshold level of particulate exposure below which
there are no health effects. There may be no safe level of exposure to PM2.5.
Safeguarding public health from air pollution in the future will mean
tightening our air quality standards.
It is time to move away from a coal-powered nation. This
will have tremendous health benefits due to preventing and reducing air
pollution. It will also yield multiple co-benefits to society, potentially
saving our economy billions of dollars annually, as well as reducing
environmental pollution and the carbon emissions that are the cause of global
warming. It’s a win-win situation, and it can happen through the implementation
of smart energy policies, including the following strategies:
- Conduct comprehensive comparative life-cycle
analyses of the costs of all electricity sources including the public health
costs of pollution.
- Implement alternative industrial and farming
policies in coal-field regions to support solar, wind, small-scale hydro, and
smart grid energy technologies.
- Phase in cleanly powered smart grids using
place-appropriate alternative energy sources.
- Plug electric vehicles into cleanly powered
- End mountaintop removal (MTR) mining; reclaim
MTR sites and abandoned mine lands.
It is time to realign federal and state regulations and
incentives to stimulate manufacture of and markets for clean energy systems.
This realignment would benefit our health, the environment, our economy, and
our planet’s climate.