The True Cost of Coal

Page - August 26, 2010
There is a tremendous human, environmental and governmental cost to coal that is not reflected in its market price. Instead, these costs are borne by society - in other words, by taxpayers like you and me.

Coal is only cheap if you externalize costs, shifting the burden to society in the form of human and environmental costs. Compared to clean, renewable forms of energy, coal simply does not add up. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.” And perhaps worst of all, coal is the leading driver of global warming, which, if unchecked, may result in major public health crises worldwide.

Health Costs

Greenpeace report: The True Cost of Coal
The harm caused by mining and burning coal is not reflected in its price per ton or its costs for a kWh of electricity, but the world at large is paying for it nonetheless. Our report, The True Cost of Coal, seeks to answer the question: Just how much are we paying for the use of coal as an energy source?

Coal mining includes more fatal injuries than any other American industry. Each year, up to 36,000 Americans die as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Nearly one in ten American children has asthma. Coal-fired power plants cause 554,000 asthma attacks every year. Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and dozens of other hazardous substances that come from coal combustion can lead to not only respiratory ailments, but also cardiovascular and nervous system disorders.

Cities with high concentrations of nitrogen oxides, a compound produced in coal combustion, have death rates four times higher than those with low concentrations, which suggests a potential correlation. Children are at particular risk from the mercury emissions from coal. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, every year between 300,000 and 630,000 American children are born with blood mercury levels so high that they underperform on neurodevelopmental tests and face lifelong loss of intelligence.

Mining Costs

The true cost of mining is enormous. Human costs, environmental costs, and societal costs are all tied to mining.

Coal mining releases methane, carbon monoxide, and CO2, and the explosives used to expose the coal can blast particulates high into the air. This ‘spoil’ is then dumped in a valley, destroying headwaters, streams, and biodiversity. Objectively, surface mining is responsible for more than 7 percent of the Appalachian forests that have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region that have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001. The forested mountaintops, slopes, and riparian areas are all adversely affected by surface mining operations. Forest animals, birds, and fish populations are decimated. Once it’s out of the ground, transporting coal alone generates over 600,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 50,000 tons of particulate matter.

Generation Costs

A large coal-burning power plant releases millions of tons of toxic chemicals into the air — and ultimately into our bodies — every year. The nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and dozens of other hazardous substances that come from coal combustion can lead to not only respiratory ailments, but also cardiovascular and nervous system disorders. Many of these pollutants also make their way into our water, creating more opportunities for them to make it into our system. Coal-burning power plants emit more than 30% of the US’s global warming pollution — as much as all of our planes, trains, automobiles, and ships combined .

Disposal Costs

In addition to the toxic pollution they spew into the air, coal plants in the US also produce 120 million tons of toxic waste in the form of coal ash and scrubber sludge every year. That means a single coal plant that runs for 40 years will produce 9.6 million tons of toxic waste over the course of its lifetime. Currently, there is enough coal ash being stored in waste ponds to flow over Niagara Falls for more than three days straight, or, visualized differently, there is enough generated yearly to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole all the way to the South Pole.

The toxins in coal ash, such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and others, have been linked to cancer, organ disease, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and reproductive and developmental problems. Usually, this waste is stored in landfill “ponds,” many of which are unlined, that disproportionately affect the poorest communities. In many cases, the toxic components of the ash (which includes arsenic, cadmium, and mercury among many other toxic substances) leeches into the water supplies of nearby communities. In spite of the public health threat, the federal government doesn’t currently regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Global warming

Scientists tell us that the world must peak these emissions in the next 5 years if we are to avoid ecological tipping points that could set off irreversible and catastrophic climate change. As climate change touches every aspect of our society, the health impacts are almost too numerous to list. They include extreme weather events, heat waves, air pollution, and an increase in a number of diseases. According to the EPA, “these "vector-borne" diseases include malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and encephalitis.”