The coal industry has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to deceive the American public into believing that the age of coal is here to stay, and that the country has no other option to power its schools, places of worship, and businesses. The industry spent big because it knows that the exact opposite is true—the age of coal is over and the technologies are with us today to ditch coal for good.
At every stage of its life, coal does serious damage. Coal is the top contributor to climate change, is a leading cause of mercury pollution, and continues to scar mining communities in untold ways.
Coal is also a threat to our economic security. In 2011, Harvard published a report that found that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.”
Coal Plants and Climate Change
In 2012, coal accounted for 37.4% of U.S. electricity generation. And as of 2010, coal accounted for 43% of global greenhouse gas emissions from fuel combustion. Simply put, to solve the climate crisis we must stop burning coal.
Job number 1 is retiring old coal plants. In the U.S., coal-fired power plants have over 300 GW of capacity, but one-third of the power plants were built before 1970. Coming EPA regulations, authorized by the Supreme Court and given greater urgency by what the is now experiencing from global warming, will force many of these old relics to install new technologies or close for good. With renewable energy technologies available now, we must continue to retire our aging fleet of coal plants.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an average 500MW coal plant each year emits:
- 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur oxides (SOx) are the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings.
- 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a major cause of smog, and also a cause of acid rain.
- 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.
- 500 tons of particulate emissions, or soot. Small particulates are a health hazard, causing lung damage. Particulates smaller than 10 microns are not regulated, but may be soon.
- 220 tons of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons; when they don't burn completely, they are released into the air. They are a cause of smog.
- 720 tons of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and contributor to global warming.
- 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber. A scrubber uses powdered limestone and water to remove pollution from the plant's exhaust. Instead of going into the air, the pollution goes into a landfill or into products like concrete and drywall. This ash and sludge consists of coal ash, limestone, and many pollutants, such as toxic metals like lead and mercury.
- 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada. In Wisconsin alone, more than 200 lakes and rivers are contaminated with mercury. Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters, since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments. Acid rain also causes mercury poisoning by leaching mercury from rocks and making it available in a form that can be taken up by organisms.
- Trace elements of uranium. All but 16 of the 92 naturally occurring elements have been detected in coal, mostly as trace elements below 0.1 percent (1,000 parts per million, or ppm). A study by DOE's Oak Ridge National Lab found that radioactive emissions from coal combustion are greater than those from nuclear power production.
Coal and Public Health
Coal-fired power plants have been linked to developmental defects in 300,000 infants born at risk because of their mother's exposure to toxic mercury pollution to coal plants. Asthma rates are skyrocketing in communities exposed to particulates from burning coal, and now 1 out 10 children suffers from asthma. While the U.S. government has taken some positive steps to mandate pollution controls, two thirds of coal-fired plants still lack the technology needed to keep toxic air pollution, like mercury, acid gases and arsenic, out of our air and water.
Coal and Mining Communities
For far too long, coal mining has ripped apart communities. For example, Harvard found that coal mining takes a $75 billion dollar toll on Appalachia alone each year by damaging its environment and poisoning its people. Perhaps the most egregious example of the toll that mining can take is mountaintop removal mining. MTR is a mining practice where explosives are used to remove the tops of mountains to expose thin seams of coal. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is dumped into neighboring valleys, which poses significant threats to water quality in Appalachia and undermines the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act. According to a 2005 environmental impact statement, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have already been buried or contaminated.
Every year RAN evaluates the banks that fund MTR. Last report card can be found here.