The extraction, transport, processing, and combustion of coal, the predominant fuel on the planet for electricity generation including roughly 50% of the electricity in the U.S., also creates multiple hazards for human and environmental health — external costs downplayed by the champions of coal. According to a study published earlier this year, “Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal.” So even though the direct costs of coal use are rising rapidly, the real costs are higher – including state and federal subsidies from cash-strapped budgets.
We’re not just talking about climate change, and not just talking about the U.S.A. This is real money, and some of it’s your tax dollars.
China, in fact, now uses more coal than the U.S. does, but meanwhile over 2/3 of all rail traffic in the U.S. is dedicated to moving coal around. Mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, and chromium aren’t good for people or our environment, but using coal releases all those plus other toxins and carcinogens into our air, soil, and water, and not just as it’s mined and processed: even more chemicals are released as we burn the coal at power plants world-wide.
Let’s examine mercury, a neurotoxin. In the U.S. alone, burning coal releases around 48 tons every year (and remember, China burns more than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined!) We’re talking about effects such as delayed achievement of developmental milestones and trouble with fine motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities, and memory — for our children.
Once you factor in other health costs, from black lung, lung cancers, and mining accidents to asthma, kidney disease, and other medical conditions that drive up the costs of insurance, you have to wonder why we subsidize coal use, hiding the true costs of coal use from the markets while burdening state and federal budgets. Kentucky, for example, spends $643 million supporting coal that only brings in $528 million in state revenues – a loss of $115 million in a state with seriously imperiled streams and aquatic eco-systems where 7 of the 44 fly ash ponds (adjacent to the 22 coal-fired plants) are considered high-hazard, and up to 1 in 50 residents are risking cancer as a result of exposure to the waste.
We literally can’t afford to wait.
It’s time, now, to get serious about the alternatives. We can’t afford to keep spending state and federal taxes to hide the costs of production, distribution, and use of coal. We can’t afford to ignore the impact on our health, and the damage to our environment and future generations. We can’t afford to look the other way any longer.