The real cost of coal

by Robert Gardner

July 21, 2010

There are many contradictions in Americas Energy Policy. One thats come down the pipe recently is just how little we as a society rely upon aggregated costs when determining how expensive coal is. Youve heard the talking points: Coal is cheap and weve sure got a lot of it; Coal is energy security; Coal work provides good quality jobs for lots of folks. Well, not exactly. 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. Coal is only cheap if you externalize costs. For example, some externalized costs include: air quality costs (like increased rates of asthma, air opacity, poor air quality, coal fires, etc.), the costs of unsafe mining conditions (deforestation, soil erosion, black lung, and the human cost of tragedies like what we recently saw in West Virginia, and the environmental costs of disposal (leaching coal ash ponds, leaking waste destroying fish stocks and agriculture, acid mine drainage). This is a short list in what is a very large problem. The true cost of coal is in fact very, very high. Importantly, the debate has heated up recently on one very important aspect of the coal chain of custody: coal ash disposal. On June 21st, the EPA gave us, the people, 90 days to comment on a federal rule for coal ash disposal. For those that dont know, coal ash is the residue captured from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. It contains dangerous pollutants like arsenic, mercury, lead, and a host of other heavy substances and heavy metals. In short, its filthy and its never been regulated. Coal ash impoundments are routinely placed close to schools, residences, and some of the most pristine and beautiful spots in this nation. We have to tell the EPA to act responsibly for both human and environmental health and safety. To that end, the EPA has given us two choices for its federal rule. One proposal is good and the other is very bad. The first proposal would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, which it is. The other would classify coal ash as non-hazardous. To classify coal ash as non-hazardous would run contrary to the EPAs own findings, playing right into the hands of polluting industry. We need to tell the EPA that we support regulating coal ash as a "special waste" under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Coal Ash is hazardous waste; it destroys communities, destroys our ecosystem, and, unless regulated, will continue to do so in increasing amounts. The time to act on coal ash is now. Help us get to our target of 10,000 signatures by signing our petition telling the EPA to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance.  

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