If you were to listen to the people involved in the coal industry, and to some extent President Donald Trump, they would tell you that coal is the fuel of life. It is cheap in production costs, efficient in energy creation, and still plentiful compared other fossil fuels like oil. Unfortunately, coal is also the dirtiest and most harmful fuel for power generation known to mankind. No matter how much the industry likes to throw the term clean coal around, king coal remains to be the dirty ruler of the energy industry.
Coal: The Dying Fuel Superpower
Coal has been a vital part of human evolution. The industrial revolution, for example, would not have happened weren’t it for the cheap black gold found underground. It fueled our lives, it pushed innovations, and it killed countless people by its mere existence and application to solve our growing hunger for electrical power. So much so, that we focussed the generation of power solely on fossil fuels, with coal at its head.
The popularity of coal has shifted, though, from more advanced countries to developing nations. Coal giants like the US, though still involved, are slowly turning away from coal as renewable energies get more affordable and better implemented into the power grid. The boom of cheap fracking techniques to produce natural gas has also done its fair share to ensure the coal industry is slowly (emphasizing slowly) coming to an end. The US currently still uses coal to satisfy about 30% of its power demand, but that number is fading for years now. And we should be glad it does. Coal is possibly the fuel that has the most impact on our environment from mining, to burning, to side effects.
Burning Coal: The Obvious Pollutants
Thinking about the environmental and health impacts of coal, most people jump straight to the burning of coal and the pollutants it sets free into the air. There are several nasty substances that are created by burning those black lumps, and all of them have severe effects on both the environment and our health. Those emitted into the atmosphere most prominently feature:
- Sulfur Dioxide: Causing acid rain and damaging to human airways
- Mercury: In 2014, US coal plants emitted more than 40% of the US Mercury Emissions with fatal effects on human health, even in small dosages
- Nitrogen Oxides: Again, acid rain and can cause respiratory issues
- Particulates and several other nasty surprises like Lead, Arsenic, Carbon Monoxide
While there are several techniques, some required by law depending on the country, to filter parts of these harmful substances out, that doesn’t mean coal is ever really a clean product. That is not to say it we haven’t made coal safer, we have, but it still is dangerous and harmful.
One has to remember that filtering doesn’t mean it vanishes. The plant or company has to either reuse/recycle the substances elsewhere if safely possible or store it in places like landfills.
The Myth of Clean Coal
President Donald Trump himself loved the expression of clean coal during the presidential race. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Clean coal is a practice to reduce the environmental footprint of the coal industry, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Coal is a plain dirty product, there is no clean coal, no matter how many precautions we take, it will remain a dirty endeavor.
One of the efforts the industry made is literally washing coal to remove undesirable parts like sulphur. However, you are then left with sulphur in the water. There are also techniques to remove Carbon Monoxide from the air, which are then pumped underground so they can’t get into the atmosphere and many more.
Again, the issue here isn’t the effort, but it just creates different problems elsewhere. Dangerous substances can be stored for a short time, mostly without any issues, but what does happen with those substances 10-20 years from now. There already have been issues with coal ash which has gotten access to waterways in the US, and those are not isolated examples.
Add to that the problem that all these ways to basically fish harmful substances out of the coal process are costly and require additional energy, making them redundant, less impactful or plain expensive. They usually aren’t used by companies unless they are legally obliged to implement them, causing them to have no significant impact on issues like climate change after all. Is clean coal a myth? Maybe not. But at the very least, clean coal is a massively misleading term.
King Coal: Impact of Mining Practices
Coal has more impacts on the environment than just being burned. It has to be produced by mining endeavors – either above ground, underground or by removing mountaintops. Underground mines may have arguably the least impact on the environment while posing more of a danger to the people involved.
Coal mining underground is severely dangerous and risky, killing several coal miners in the last decades due to collapse, methane explosions, and unsafe mining practices. But fret not, the environment gets its fair share with not uncommon mine drainage leakages (which are incredibly acidic, often harming waterways) and leaking methane, making up 10% of US Methane emissions.
Coal mining above ground is visibly more impactful on the environment. Mountaintop removal, as used in Appalachia, sees significant parts of mountains removed with the help of explosives, causing major changes in landscape for flora and fauna. Debris created by this practice is often dumped into valleys and can obstruct or destroy natural waterways and pollute them.
The same goes for surface mining, which basically means digging a wide open hole, again destroying or displacing flora and fauna. Unlike mountaintop removal, those surface sites are usually obliged to fulfill a reclamation process once the mining is done, reclaiming destroyed land. However, that practice comes with its own set of issues and impacts as well.
Coal Cleanup: A Grim Future for the Environment
Coal companies are obliged to clean up their mess, for lack of a better expression. This means that when they are granted a lease for a land to mine on, they have to pay a bond as insurance that they will reclaim the land. Basically filling up the hole and making sure nature can go its way. Unfortunately, in the US, there are several issues with this practice, that will get amplified with the slow death of the industry going forward.
Some states have allowed coal companies to self-bond in the past, meaning they were granted a lease without having to pay a bond because they were financially viable. No one expected the coal industry to plummet the way it did, so in some areas, companies could just get leases and rip the ground open as they pleased.
The results are manifold. It has caused several mining sites to be left abandoned due to bankruptcies. This means dug holes just lay open like the day the last miners left. It also means that discharged coal and dirt piles are left untouched near those mining sites. When it rains, pollutants are washed out of them and reach local waterways. Occasionally washed away dirt also clogs drainage pipes causing the local communities additional costs. Let’s not forget that those dirt piles still have coal in them, which makes them flammable. There have been several fires caused by these piles in the past.
Coal Can’t Not Have an Impact
Let’s assume reclaiming the land is successful – it still creates several additional problems. Not only can it take several decades to centuries for nature to reclaim a patch of land, it often never will because the ground and topsoil of the area are affected by the coal mining. Coal is hydrophobic by nature, making it a tough ground composition for many plants to start growing because it isn’t absorbing water. These are the issues we already see today and will be seeing for a long time as the coal industry is on its way out in the US.
The usage of coal was always a holy staple of the US economy, but it isn’t anymore, so much is clear. In fact, it has overstayed its welcome and poses health and environmental risks to us and our planet that are far too great to outweigh the costs it demands.
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