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New Study Lifts the Curtain on Clean Coal

coal is clean!A new study from West Virginia University exposes one more dirty little secret about America’s favorite fossil fuel, coal.  Though coal mining is touted as an economic boon to local communities, the study reviews mortality statistics to conclude that coal mining communities in Appalachia are among the weakest economies in their home states, and in the country.  The study, “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions,” appears in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports, the official journal of the U.S. Public Health Services.


Mountaintop Removal and Clean Coal

The promotion of “clean coal” as a sustainable fuel hearkens back to the days when cigarette smoking was promoted as a healthy habit.  Sure, you get a kick, but there’s a cost.  Regardless of any new technology for burning coal or converting it to other fuels, coal comes from the ground.  The worst damage is done by the relatively new phenomenon of mountaintop removal – literally blowing up mountains to reach coal seams close to the surface.  It’s a cheaper method than underground mining, but as the environmental equivalent of lung cancer, mountaintop removal has leveled hundred of pristine mountains and obliterated hundreds of miles of streams in one of America’s richest ecosystems, the Appalachian region.

Coal Ash Dumps and Clean Coal

Given the devastating effects of mountaintop removal, clearly the “clean” in clean coal refers only to emissions from coal fired power plants, not to coal extraction methods.  That’s quite a narrow definition, especially when you factor in the impact of coal ash disposal.  Ash is the stuff left over from burning coal.  With about 50% of the electricity in the U.S. currently generated by coal, that adds up to a lot of ash.  The disposal method of choice is to quarantine the ash in open reservoirs.  It was barely a year ago that the dam on one such reservoir failed, spilling 5 million cubic yards of coal ash into a Tennessee community.  The U.S. EPA responded by proposing new regulations for coal ash dumps.  That’s hardly a comfort to communities that host hundreds of ash dumps in the U.S., especially the 44 coal ash dumps that the EPA lists as “potentially high hazard” due to the risk of human fatalities from a dam failure.

The Impact of Coal Mining on Local Economies

As revealed by the new West Virginia University study, the “clean” in clean coal pulls an even more impressive disappearing act when it comes to the benefits of coal on the communities that are home to mining operations.  Charleston Gazette writer Ken Ward Jr., whose previous work includes an article on the health effects of coal mining operations, covered the release of “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining” and has made a pdf of the study available through his blog, Coal Tattoo.  The authors are Michael Hendryx, associate director of the WVU Institute for Health Policy Research with co-author Melissa Ahern of Washington State University.  As Ward notes, the authors determined that the coal industry contributes about $8 billion annually to the Appalachian economy, but under their analysis the economic losses attributable to premature deaths associated with coal operations are in the range of $42 billion.

The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal

The authors of the study emphasize that their estimate is conservative, based primarily on the well documented connection between early mortality and economic health.  Ward’s blog cites additional factors that were not part of the study, which make the economic picture even gloomier: the effect of poor health on worker productivity, the increase in public aid for foods stamps and Medicaid, and the economic consequences of natural resource destruction.  This last item is particularly relevant to mountaintop removal, which is a highly mechanized process linked with job loss, not job creation.  Appalachia lost more than half of its coal mining jobs in the 20 years following 1985, when mountaintop mining came into its own.  On top of that, the destruction of pristine, tourist-friendly areas near the famous Appalachian Trail closes at least one door to alternative employment opportunities that could help improve community health.

Whither Clean Coal?

Local opposition to mountaintop mining is just one indication that the “clean coal” moniker isn’t pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes.  Another is the increasing number of canceled coal fired power plants.  The Sierra Club just marked the 100th cancellation of a planned coal fired power plant in the U.S., a trend that goes beyond green-leaning states like California.  Wyoming and Kansas are among the states recently canceling coal plants, and in Illinois a coal-to-liquid plant got the heave-ho.  Coal is running out of places to go in the U.S., regardless of its cleanliness — or lack thereof.

h/t to Earth News.

Image: rachelmolenda on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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