Coal is an antiquated form of energy that should be abandoned now. Responsible for over 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, coal contributes more to climate change than any other fossil fuel.[1] It pollutes at every stage of its production and use, wastes huge amounts of fresh water, and destroys ecosystems and communities. The true cost of coal greatly exceeds its benefits as a “cheap” energy source. We desperately need policies to help kick our global addiction to coal and other dirty sources of energy. We need to strengthen and enforce environmental legislation, curtail our energy consumption, end subsidies for fossil fuels, and fund renewable alternatives.

Coal Keeps the Lights On

• The U.S. is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of coal, after China.[4] There are about 580 coal-fired plants in the US, which together consume over one billion tons of coal a year.[5][6]

• Coal still comprises 27% of worldwide energy use.[7] It provides 42% of electricity worldwide[8] and 48% of electricity in the U.S.[9]

• Nearly half of the increase in worldwide energy use over the past decade has been on the account of coal.[10]

Coal is at once the most conventional of fossil fuels and the most extreme. Underground mining reasonably could be considered a form of extreme energy because of coal’s devastating consequences throughout its industrial life cycle. But mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining bring the destruction to a new level, blasting land apart and burying streams in mining debris.

The Navajo have a traditional belief that coal is 'Mother Earth’s liver,' a belief which holds up well to scientific scrutiny: just as the liver serves to detoxify the body, coal serves to detoxify the environment. Formed over millions of years as buried organic matter was subjected to intense heat and pressure, coal seams underground function as a gigantic filter, sequestering heavy metals and other toxins as water percolates through them. When coal is kept in the ground, it helps keep our water safe and clean; when it is mined and burned, toxins accumulated from millions of years of filtration are released into the environment.

Dirty Energy from Cradle to Grave
There is no such thing as clean coal. Coal generates pollution at every stage of its industrial life cycle: mining, processing, transportation, burning, and disposal.

Wasting the World's Water

• The US Geological Survey estimates that 55-75 trillion gallons of water are withdrawn annually by the coal industry in the US.[11]

• A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired plant withdraws 300 million gallons each day for cooling.[12] • Between 800 and 3000 gallons of water are used to extract, process, and dispose each ton of coal.[13]

• Intensive water use by the coal industry has depleted aquifers, including the Navajo Aquifer, the main source of water for the Hopi and Navajo tribes.[14]

• Although some forms of renewable energy are also highly water intensive, photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines require little or no water for their operation.

“Acid mine drainage” is a toxic rust-colored liquid, containing sulfuric acid and heavy metals, that often runs off from mine sites. It can contaminate surface water and groundwater, damaging aquatic life and human health.[15] At surface mines in Appalachia, debris from blasting is dumped into nearby valleys. “Valley fills” have buried 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams, and they cause additional contamination downstream.[16]

Coal processing can release coal dust into the air, contributing to respiratory illness in surrounding communities.[17] The liquid wastes from processing are either stored in impoundments, which are sometimes contained by unstable dams, or injected into underground mines; both types of disposal pose a risk to groundwater and surface water.[18]

The massive vehicles used to transport coal release their own polluting emissions.[19] Overfilled coal trucks spill coal dust onto roadsides, damage rural roads, and increase the risk of traffic accidents.

Coal fired power plants release carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, arsenic, lead, mercury, and other pollutants into the atmosphere[20]. Pollution from coal plants is a leading cause of acid rain.[21] Thermal pollution: heated water discharged by a coal plant can kill fish and cause excessive algae growth, choking out other aquatic life.

Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie

New power plant technologies touted as “clean coal” are not clean at all.

• Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) actually increases overall pollution, as well as all the other destructive effects of coal, because in order to run CCS systems, power plants must produce 25% more energy, and therefore use 25% more coal.[32]

•  Coal plants that install smokestack scrubbers to reduce their emissions often dump the wastewater from the scrubbing process into waterways, merely exchanging air pollution for water pollution.[33]

Contaminants concentrated in coal combustion waste include arsenic, mercury, lead, and other metals, and radioactive elements such as uranium.[22] According to Scientific American, ounce per ounce, coal ash releases more radioactivity into the surrounding environment than nuclear waste.[23] Coal wastes disposed in impoundments or landfills can overflow or leach from their disposal sites, contaminating groundwater and surface water.[24]

Destroying Ecosystems
The Appalachian mountains contain some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the temperate world.  Mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining not only pollute these ecosystems but literally scrape them from the surface of the earth. According to a 2009 study by Appalachian Voices, surface mining has already reduced 1.2 million acres of Central Appalachia forest to a lunar wasteland – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, representing 10% of Central Appalachia and over 500 flattened mountains.[34] No amount of “reclamation” can even begin to replace the ecosystems destroyed.

Destroying Communities
In Appalachia, mining rains fly-rock down on mountain communities, insults their heritage by demolishing cemeteries and historic sites, and renders traditional livelihoods such as farming and wildcrafting unviable. Over the last few decades, surface mining has contributed to the depopulation of several counties in Appalachia.[35] In the Black Mesa region of northern Arizona, thousands of Hopi and Navajo have been displaced through a combination of industry-influenced government relocation programs and contamination and depletion of the tribes’ water sources, which have religious significance to both tribes.[36][37] Coal mines and processing plants, coal fired power plants, and coal waste disposal sites in the U.S. are disproportionately located near poor and minority communities.[38][39]

The Price in Human Life

• Fine particulate matter from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.[25]

•  In the decade of 2000-2010, there were 366 coal mining fatalities in the U.S. and 53,484 in China.[26][27][28]

•  Rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, kidney disease, and birth defects in coal mining areas of Appalachia are significantly higher than in non-mining areas.[29][30][31]

A Legacy of Disaster
While the normal operations of the coal industry are themselves an environmental catastrophe, accidents and spills make the environmental consequences of coal even worse. In 2000, liquid coal waste stored in a 72-acre impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky broke into an underground mine and spilled out of the mine’s other openings, dumping 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into local waterways. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of the Big Sandy River and contaminated the water supply for 27,000 people.[40][41] In 2008, a retention wall ruptured for a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tennessee, spilling over a billion gallons of sludge onto 300 acres of countryside, damaging homes and severely contaminating two tributaries of the Tennessee River. Both spills killed all aquatic life in large stretches of the rivers they polluted.[42] There are more coal ash disasters waiting to happen! There are about 600 coal ash disposal sites in the continental US.[43]

[1] International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics (2011)
[2] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review (2011), Table 7.2

[3] Ibid.

[4] "Coal Statistics." World Coal Association
[5] Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual (2011), Table 5.1
[6] Energy Information Administration, Quarterly Coal Report (January 2011), Table 32
[7] International Energy Agency, "Share of total energy supply in 2009" (2011)
[8] International Energy Agency, Power Generation From Coal (2010)

[9] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review (2011), Figure 2.0

[10] International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook (2011), Figure 10.1
[11] Crane-Murdoch, Sierra. "A Desperate Clinch: Coal Production Confronts Water Scarcity." Circle of Blue (2010).
[12] ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] Black Mesa Water Coalition, Dine CARE, To' Nizhoni Ani, Center For Biological Diversity, & Sierra Club. "New Report: Black Mesa Coal Mining Draining Region's Water Supply" (2011)
[15] Keating, Martha. "Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of Coal." Clean Air Task Force (2001).

[16] "Ecological Impacts of Mountaintop Removal." Appalachian Voices. 

[17] McKeown, Alice. "The Dirty Truth About Coal." The Sierra Club (2007)
[18] Keating, Martha. "Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of Coal." Clean Air Task Force (2001).
[19] ibid.
[20] ibid.

[21] "What Is Acid Rain?" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
[22] Keating, Martha. "Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of Coal." Clean Air Task Force (2001).

[23] Hvistendahl, Mara. "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste," Scientific American (2007).
[24] Keating, Martha. "Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of Coal." Clean Air Task Force (2001).

[25] Schneider, Conrad & Jonathan Banks. "The Toll From Coal," Clean Air Task Force (2010).

[26] "Coal Fatalities for 1900 through 2010." Mine Safety and Health Administration.

[27] Wei, Guiling. "Statistical Analysis of Sino-U.S. Coal Mining Accidents." International Journal of Business Administration 2 (2011): 82-86.

[28] "China's Coalmine Death Toll Drops 7.5% in 2010."

[29] Ahern, M., M. Hendryx, J. Conley, E. Fedorko, A. Ducatman, and K. Zullig. “The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003.” Environmental Research (2011), Article in Press. 

[30] Hendryx, M. “Mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease in coal mining areas of Appalachia.” International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 82 (2009): 243-49.
[31] Hendryx, M., L. Wolfe, J. Luo, and B. Webb. “Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia with and without Mountaintop Coal Mining.”  Journal of Community Health (2011). 

[32] Jacobson, Mark Z. and Mark A. Delucchi, “Providing All Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part I: Technologies, Energy Resources, Quantities and Areas of Infrastructure, and Materials,” Energy Policy 39 (2011): 1154 – 1169 

[33] Charles Duhigg, "Cleansing the Air at the Expense of the Waterways." New York Times, October 12 2009
[34] "Mountaintop Removal Reclamation."
[35] "The Human Cost of Coal."

[36] Nies, Judith. "The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold." Orion, Summer 1998

[37] Corbin, Amy. "Black Mesa," Sacred Land Film Project (2001)
[38] "Coal Ash Waste Contamination Study: 31 New Water Pollution Sites Found in 14 States, Significantly Increasing Pressure on OMB to Release Delayed EPA Rule." Environmental Integrity Project, February 24, 2010
[39] "Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People." National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2009-2012)
[40] Price, Rita. "Still Buried in Sludge." The Columbus Dispatch, October 11, 2004
[41] Lovern, Kyle. "Paper in Heart of Appalachia Tackles Mining Issues." Williamson Daily News , February 2006
[42] Simone, Samira J. "Tennessee Sludge Spill Estimate Grows to 1 Billion Gallons." , December 28, 2008
[43] Sierra Club: "A Nation Covered in Coal Ash"

Article "Coal" written by Samuel Mollusk with additional writing and research from Zack Malitz. Email with questions or comments.