The real cost of coal energy

Coal energy has helped usher America into the industrial age and enabled our country to establish its position as a global super-power. Coal helped power the trains on our railroads, as well as provided steel for our skyscrapers,  and in many ways the energy of coal’s impact on our country has been quite large. We are now at a critical time in our countries energy development, and we must ask if coal is the best way to power our country. In this article I will discuss some of the topics about coal energy and what I think are some things we should be looking for in the future.

When asked about coal power energy, I think back to when Coal Energy Interest groups ran political ads around the last presidential election, talking about how cost effective burning coal was. But after researching the topic I don’t think they told us what the actual cost really is. Recently I was able to look at a report done by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) where they outline how just about every part of the life cycle of coal has costly effects on human health.

According to the study the problems start when coal comes out of the ground; the majority of coal mining (69%) is surface mining, where large explosions are used to displace topsoil to allow access to coal reserves less than 200 feet underground. This “mountain top removal” process simply destroys anything that was living above the coal reserve, and also ensures that working in the coal industry is more dangerous than the average job.

After the coal is extracted from the earth the problems only get worse. The coal that is extracted is usually mixed in with natural elements from soil and rock so they must wash the material with polymer chemicals and water that make sludge or slurry. According to the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, in addition to the polymer chemicals; heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, and manganese. These heavy metals contain carcinogens and other toxins, which can cause detrimental health effects like cancer or kidney and liver failure.

More problems arise when coal is burnt. Burning coal is responsible for emitting 87% of total utility-related nitrogen oxide pollution, 94% of utility-related sulfur dioxide pollution, and 98% of all utility-related mercury pollution, according to a National air quality and emissions trend report done by the EPA in 2003. In the study done by the PSR it was found that coal fired power plants are the second largest source of nitrogen oxide pollution (the largest of course being automobiles.) Nitrogen oxide is responsible for producing urban smog and is a known respiratory irritant.

When coal is burnt a byproduct called, coal ash or fly ash, is produced and has the same harmful heavy metals that are found in toxic coal slurry. These byproducts of the coal combustion process are called Coal Combustion Residuals (CCRs) by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is also the organization responsible for CCR disposal regulations. The EPA currently allows power plants to store CCRs in landfills, underground pits, and holding ponds, as well as discharge it into nearby water systems with an EPA permit.

One of the most notable coal ash spills took place near Eden, North Carolina when, according to the Catawba River keeper, 50,000 to 80,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water was spilled into the nearby Dan river from a power plant owned by Duke Energy. This was one of the worst industrial toxic spills in United States History and is a great example of a warning sign, because most coal power plants are stationed along rivers or other major bodies of water.

Coal ash is largely understudied and an unknown part of the coal combustion process, but I think that it is increasingly important as we look to the future because of the implications to human health and the environment.

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