Coal

Feb. 13, 2017

There has been some focus on the coal industry and coal workers lately with our congress passing legislation removing regulations for dumping coal mining waste into streams and waterways. It was claimed this would be good for coal miners. During the election, there was also talk about bringing back the coal industry with an insinuation that liberal politics was responsible for its decline- that the decline is due to efforts to reduce climate change. These are alternative facts.

So perhaps we might consider the reality. One of the reasons that coal has been in decline as a fuel source for our electricity has to do with plentiful natural gas. Natural gas is cheaper and burns cleaner. Also, the rise in more sustainable energy sources, which are also less expensive in the long-term, impacted the coal industry. In addition, the use of machinery for coal mining is more efficient and much cheaper than using manpower to mine coal. As demand for coal has dropped, executives and CEOs at the nation’s top coal producing corporations drastically increased their personal compensation, slashed employee benefits, and terminated workers while their companies were spiraling into bankruptcy. Generally, miners are losing jobs and health benefits because of lack of demand and greedy corporate CEOs. These have all had a major impact on coal miner employment and it is highly unlikely these jobs are coming back.

But let’s address the impact of coal mining on miners and the communities that surround the coal operations. Coal mining leads U.S. industries in fatal injuries and is associated with chronic health problems among miners, especially respiratory diseases. In addition to the miners themselves, communities near coal mines are adversely affected by mining operations due to the effects of blasting, washing, leakage from slurry ponds, the collapse of abandoned mines, damage done to streams and waterways, and the dispersal of dust from coal trucks during transportation. Slurry injected underground can release arsenic, barium, lead and manganese into nearby wells, contaminating local drinking water supplies. The storage of post-combustion wastes from coal plants also threatens human health. There are 584 coal ash dump sites in the U.S, and toxic residues have migrated into water supplies at dozens of sites. Is the production of energy from coal worth the quality of life for the Americans who live in these communities? Couldn’t job training in sustainable energy help relieve the unemployment issues in coal mining towns?

On a more global scale, coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. Air pollutants produced by coal combustion act on the respiratory system, contributing to serious health effects including asthma, lung disease and lung cancer, and adversely affect normal lung development in children. Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular disease, such as arterial occlusion and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases cardiovascular mortality. Studies show a correlation between coal-related air pollutants and stroke. Coal pollutants also act on the nervous system to cause loss of intellectual capacity, primarily through mercury. Researchers estimate that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to reduce IQ scores and cause lifelong loss of intelligence. Even people who do not develop illnesses from coal pollutants will find their health and wellbeing impacted due to coal's contribution to global warming. The discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere associated with burning coal is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health and wellbeing worldwide, such as heat stroke, malaria, declining food production, scarce water supplies, social conflict and starvation. In addition, extreme weather events cause many human casualties.

Wouldn’t it be wiser to move into the future with sustainable energy sources?

Physicians for Social Responsibility released a groundbreaking medical report, "Coal's Assault on Human Health," which takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body.  A copy of the full report can be found at http://www.psr.org/coalreport