Coal Mining And the Environment; Going Backwards Instead of Forwards

Coal mining has been the backbone of many communities in rural America – often shaping the economies of entire town based around it – but has faced hardship in recent decades due to a lessening reliance on the combustible sedimentary rock a and tightening of environmental regulations pertaining to its procurement and disposal of its waste. To date, coal mining has been seen as something of an anachronism; a practice that is falling by the wayside as newer, cleaner, safer, and more efficient energy sources are being cultivated, such as wind, solar, and biofuel.


However, many of the towns that have embraced the coal trade as the defining characteristic of their lives have been refusing to change or evolve; clinging to the hope that, one day, their wares will once again reach the same level of desirability they once had, coal miners continue to toil away amid diminishing profits in a field that is already essentially obsolete. The world is moving on, but instead of joining it, many coal miners are hoping for a reversal of progress.


A light at the end of the tunnel came for many coal mining communities when Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States; a large part of Trump’s campaign centered on disenfranchised working-class Americans who, one way or another, felt passed by or abandoned by their leaders. With the promise of loosening regulations relating to coal mining, such as those governing the disposal of waste materials, many miners flocked to the voting booths come election day to support the man they envisioned as the one who would save jobs that most others saw as outdated and promoting pollution and environmental injury. And, to date, Trump has proven to be true to his word, signing several Executive Orders that have reversed or lessened Obama-era regulations that were seen as tough on the coal industry.


But, despite being an inefficient, antiquated, and – quite frankly – dirty power source, what is it about coal that makes it so bad for the planet? The American Lung Association has been highly critical of coal as an energy source, citing its negative effects on both the environment and human health in their 2011 publication entitled Toxic Air: the Case for Cleaning up Coal-Fired Power Plants:


“Coal-fired power plants produce electricity for the nation’s power grid, but they also produce more hazardous air emissions than any other industrial pollution sources,” they said. “The quantity is staggering. Over 386,000 tons of 84 separate hazardous air pollutants spew from over 400 plants in 46 states. Their emissions threaten the health of people who live near these plants, as well as those who live hundreds of miles away. Despite the concentration of these plants largely in the Midwest and Southeast, their toxic emissions threaten the air in communities nationwide.”


But it’s not just the waste and pollution that’s generated by coal while it’s burning that has environmentalists concerns; what’s left over afterwards has them worried as well. Around ten percent of coal is ash, and according to not-for-profit organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal ash is hazardous and toxic to human beings and other living things.


“Coal ash – the waste material left after coal is burned – contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of them toxic.  And disposal of the growing mounds of coal ash is creating grave risks to human health,” they said. “Toxic constituents of coal ash are blowing, spilling and leaching (dissolving and percolating) from storage units into air, land and human drinking water, posing an acute risk of cancer and neurological effects as well as many other negative health impacts:  heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children. This ash, which is generated at coal-fired power plants across the country, is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the country.”


Of course, with all of the proven negative health effects coal brings to the table, who do you thinks suffers the most? Yes, the very same people who rely on the sedimentary rock for their very livelihoods. Coal miners have reported damage to their lungs, heart, and nervous system, as well as asthma, strokes, reduced intelligence, artery blockages, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, mercury poisoning, arterial occlusion, and lung cancer.


And, in addition to the human toll, coal mining and coal fueling of power stations and industrial processes can cause major environmental damage, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.


“Coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the primary cause of global warming. In 2011, utility coal plants in the United States emitted a total of 1.7 billion tons of CO2.  A typical coal plant generates 3.5 million tons of CO2 per year,” they said. “Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. Some emissions can be significantly reduced with readily available pollution controls, but most U.S. coal plants have not installed these technologies.”


For years, name green and environmental blogs, such as Yellow Pages Goes Green, have advocated clean, renewable energy sources and research into new and developing technologies that would hope to lessen – and eventually eliminate – the world’s reliance on costly and dangerous fossil fuels. It’s time to forge a brave path to the future and leave behind the relics of the past; coal and other carbons are evocative of that past era, whereas solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal are the pathway forward to a clean, efficient, and green planet for generations to come.