Link to the Toxicology Page.

Basic Information

Air Pollution

Coal is the single largest contributor to air pollution in the United States.

1. Nitrous Oxide: One type of pollution from coal is nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is damaging to the environment and to humans. Along with sulfur dioxide, it is a huge contributor to acid rain. Acid rain is dangerous for humans. It is created when gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide react with normal gases in our atmosphere. When it falls from the sky it looks and taste like normal rain so it is hard to detect. According to the EPA, "Many scientific studies have identified a relationship between elevated levels of fine particles from acid rain and increased illness and premature death from heart and lung disorders, such as asthma and bronchitis." In addition, acid rain steeps up the deterioration of buildings and reduces plant life. Nitrous oxide is also a contributor to global warming. Coal is not the primary contributor to nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, cars are, but coal plants are still a large contributor.

2. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Coal power plants are the largest producer of sulfur dioxide in the United States. The EPA sees a direct correlation between the amount of SO2 a person is exposed to with adverse health affects including increased bronco-constriction and asthma. People exposed to higher levels of SO2 are also more likely to visit the emergency room. It is estimated that up to 30,000 people's lives are cut short from this type of pollution. That is unacceptable. However, because of EPA regulations, the amount of sulfur in the atmosphere has decreased by 71% since 1980.


3. Mercury: Most people know the dangers of Mercury. Well coal is responsible for 1/3 of mercury emissions. Mercury is released into the atmosphere by the burning of coal. It then falls from the atmosphere into our lakes and streams. When we eat fish, we are exposing ourselves to mercury. Mercury is especially harmful to fetuses. It is very important for pregnant women to avoid eating fish with high levels of mercury. Mercury exposure is also linked with increased heart disease among middle aged men.
(Science Daily)


Climate Change

1. Coal is responsible for 20% of global green house gases and still increasing.
2. Coal makes up 27% of the United States' green house gases. It is expected to increase by 33% in the next 15 years. Factors mentioned above, i.e. the abundance and the cheap price of coal lead most experts to think the demand of coal will. Unless coal continues to become cleaner, it will be our biggest contributor to climate change.

(Pew Research Center)

Author's Opinion:

The following are opinions of the author: I like coal chiefly because of the low energy cost. It is also less of a risk with supplies being as large as they are. Having said that, as I child I had asthma. While not too serious, asthma was not a fun experience for me. I believe that there is a strong enough correlation between the coal's pollution and the rise in asthma for action to be taken. However, I already believe that action is being taken. Coal is becoming cleaner and cleaner. While they're are still many problems with the substance, I am confident that coal will be pollution free faster than the time it takes to develop another type
 of energy to meet the rising demand for US and world wide energy. A separate problem mentioned above with coal is the environmental impact of mining. There will always be tradeoffs. I will look to the Economist more for this, but I believe private property rights must be respected. In order to protect the Mountains, environmentalist groups or private individuals should be given the right to buy the property before the coal companies. Government should not be allowed to use their power to take this property away. That way, the more pristine areas of our country that might happen to be coal rich will be preserved, while less pristine areas will be bought by coal companies. Coal companies should also be held responsible for any damage they cause to streams and other water sources by mining. If they can not control where the sediment pollution goes, they should be legally forced to compensate all homeowners in the area, and/or build new infrastructure to meet the people in the areas need, like municipal water system that stretches from one part of the state to another part of the state.

From the Ground to the Light Bulb

Where Coal Comes From:

Coal is a nonrenewable resource that takes millions of years to create. Most of the earth's coal was formed from energy of dead plants trapped underneath the soil. Heat and pressure from the build up of rocks and dirt on top of the dead plants transformed the dead plants into coal. ¹

Different Types of Coal

Anthracite: The highest quality of coal. For this reason is it used mainly to heat homes, because the pollution is not as bad as other types of coal. Found predominately in the North East United States. There re not many reserves.

Bituminous: Most common type of coal. Second highest quality of coal. This is the most common type of coal used in coal burning plants.

sub-Bituminous: Very abundant out west and in Alaska. It is considered to be a lower quality coal than Anthracite or Bituminous, but it has a very low sulfur content.

Lignite: Lignite is the lowest quality of coal. It is also geologically the youngest of the four types. It is the most harmful to the environment.

Getting Coal From the Ground:

There are two main methods of coal mining: surface and underground mining. There are over 1000 surface mines and over 1000 underground mines in the country. Underground coal is more difficult to reach, but the coal is of higher quality.²


Transporting Coal:

In the United States, coal is usually transported from the mines in trucks to barges and railroads. Certain areas of the country require specific coal. For example, Atlanta requires coal with a lower sulfur content, so coal for Georgia's power plants are shipped from a more selective group of mines. The United States also exports coal mainly to be used for steel in other countries.³

Coal Power Plants:

Coal power plants produce electricity by heating up water to extremely high levels. The boiling water produces steam that builds up enormous pressure. The high pressure steam flows into a turbine, which then turns a generator. The turning of the generator produces electricity. Another way to think about it: Coal has stored chemical energy which is converted into heat 'steam.' The steam turning the turbine is a conversion into mechanical energy. Lastly, the mechanical energy is converted into electricity. Coal changes states three times. According to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, each time energy is transformed, the overall quality decreases.⁴


Coal Electricity in our Houses:

In the United States, coal makes up about 52% of our total electric consumption. The Energy Information Administration estimates that we will see about a 1.1-1.5% increase per year in the amount of coal we consume.

(EIA)(Green Earthing Society)

Pros of Coal

Coal is Abundant:

We will not run out of coal in the foreseeable future. America has enough coal to last for 200 years. We recoverable coal equivalent to three times the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. However proponents of other forms of energy make the point that since we have been mining coal for 150 years, all the easy to get to coal is practically gone. Most of the remaining coal in the United States might be under towns, cities, or natural parks.

Coal is Domestic:

Because coal is all domestic, we are independent from foreign countries. If we were to have a war or another huge international conflict, oil and other energy sources could be cut off, but we would still enough coal to power the entire country. We export 81 million tons of coal, while we just import 20 million tons of coal.

Coal is Cheap:

Coal is currently the cheapest energy source for our country. Energy prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years. We are a country of middle class workers, it would be unethical to cut off cheap energy and hurt their families with high prices. Every dollar less spent on energy is one dollar more for healthcare or food.

Coal is Cleaner:

Technology is advancing fast. According to Clean Coal's website, coal's pollution is 77% less potent per amount burned than the EPA's regulation. The coal industry is working to capture the CO2 that coal releases. They are working to make coal fire plants carbon neutral. With additional investment coal could become just as clean as any 'green' energy.

(Clean Coal USA)

Cons of Coal

Mountain Top Removal 6 Steps:

1. Clearing: Before Mt. Top removal begins all vegetation is killed and top soil removed. Sometimes this vegetation is not disposed of properly, illegally burned or thrown into water.
2. Blasting: 500-800 feet of mountain top can be removed by using tons of explosives. The mountain has to go somewhere, a lot of the time it ends up in the area's streams.
3. Digging: Coal companies use a digger that can be up to 22 stories high. The digger looks bad and does not provide as many jobs for the miners.
4. Dumping Waste: Waste is just dumped in streams. The EPA estimates that over 1000 miles of stream had been buried by topsoil in 2001. The number is only increasing in the past decade.
5. Processing: The coal is processed by the mining companies. The left over waste is in the form of sludge stored by the coal companies.
6. Reclamation: Only rarely is extensive reclamation done: Usually reclamation consist of just grass being planted. Even the most extensive reclamation project will not recover the streams and the damaged drinking water for families in the area.

(I Love The Moutains)

Coal in the News

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American Coalition for Clean Energy. “Abundance, Affordability, Commitment to Clean.” Clean Coal USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.
Filippini, Rachel. “Air Pollution from Coal Combustion.” Group Against Smog and Pollution. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.
The Green Earthing Society. “Coal Mining.” By Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <‌fossilfuels>.
I Love Mountains. “Resources.” End Mountain Top Removal. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.
The Pew Research Center. “Coal and Climate Change Facts.” The Pew Center on Climate Change. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.
Tennessee Valley Authority. “Coal Fired Power Plant.” TVA Power. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.
US Energy Information Administration. “Nonrenewable Coal.” EIA Energy Kids. EIA, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2010.