Life Cycle of Coal

Coal is the predominant source of energy used to produce electricity today. Almost half of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal, mined in states such as Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.

Electricity provides many benefits worldwide, including economic development, higher standards of living, and increased life expectancy. However, there are major health costs associated with the use of coal.

According to the American Lung Association, coal-fired power plants produce more hazardous air emissions than any other industrial pollution sources. The quantity is staggering. Over 386,000 tons of 84 separate hazardous air pollutants spew from over 400 plants in 46 states. Their emissions threaten the health of people who live near these plants, as well as those who live hundreds of miles away. Despite the concentration of these plants largely in the Midwest and Southeast, their toxic emissions threaten the air in communities nationwide.

From beginning to end of coal’s “life cycle” — mining it, transporting it, burning it, and disposing of it — coal consumption is devastating our environment, our communities and our health. There is nothing clean about coal (no matter what the tv ads try to tell you).


Coal burned at Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake comes from Mountain Top Removal Mining or MTR. Mountaintop removal mining literally blows the tops of mountains off in a form of strip mining to get at seams of coal.

Mountaintop Removal Mining is devastating communities throughout Appalachia. People who live in mountaintop removal mining communities have a 14.4% rate of cancer compared with 9.4% for people elsewhere in Appalachia. A study from the Environmental Research Journal reported that children born in counties home to mountaintop coal mines had a 26% higher risk of suffering birth defects, compared to ones born in non-mining regions.

Coal mining leads U.S. industries in fatal injuries.  According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the 2006 fatality rate in coal mining was 49.5 per 100,000 workers, more than 11 times greater than that in all private industry. Coal mining is also associated with chronic health problems among miners. Black lung disease is caused by inhalation of respirable coal mine dust that causes lung tissue scarring.
In addition to the miners themselves, communities near coal mines may be adversely affected by mining operations. Injuries and even deaths may result from physical damage to surrounding communities due to blasting at surface mines and subsidence of underground mines. Surface mining also destroys forests and ground-cover, leading to flood-related injury and mortality, as well as soil erosion and the  contamination of water supplies.

Contaminated water from city of Stephens in Wise County, VA near Mountaintop Removal Mine site

Coal is usually washed before it is transported to power plants to separate it from soil and rock impurities. Washing uses polymer chemicals and large quantities of water, and creates a liquid waste called slurry or sludge that must be stored. The slurry is the consistency of cement, and in addition to water, mud, and polymer chemicals, it contains heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury that are common in mined rock. Mine operators construct dams to impound the slurry in ponds, or inject it back into closed mines. Both slurry disposal strategies—the construction of surface impoundments and underground injection into closed mines— may leach chemicals into groundwater supplies. Once it is mined and washed, coal must be transported to power plants. Coal is hauled to plants by train, truck, barge, and conveyor. Trains are the most economical way to move coal long distances and play the largest role in coal transport. In 2005, railroads accounted for 70% of coal shipments to power plants. Coal trains and trucks also release coal dust into the air as they move, degrading air quality and exposing nearby communities to dust inhalation.


It is during the combustion phase of coal’s lifecycle that our dependence on coal energy exacts the greatest toll on human health. Coal combustion releases over 70 harmful chemicals into the environment and contributes significantly to global warming.

Although coal supplies roughly 50% of the nation’s electricity, it produces approximately 87% of total utility-related nitrogen oxide pollution, 94% of utility-related sulfur dioxide pollution, and 98% of all utility-related mercury pollution.

In EPA smokestack tests released in 1998, coal plants were found to emit 67 different Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), many of which are known or probable human carcinogens, neurotoxins that can harm brain development, and reproductive toxins. These 67 HAPs include arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, acrolein, dioxins, formaldehyde, and radionuclides. Based on exposure and risk estimates, the EPA identified four coal-related HAPs as posing potential risks to human health: mercury, dioxins, arsenic, and nickel. Mercury is of greatest concern due to its impacts on the nervous system. In 2007, electric utilities were responsible for more than 70% of all mercury air emissions. Almost all of this mercury came from coal combustion.

The American Lung Association (ALA) recently released a new report on the dramatic health hazards surrounding coal-fired power plants. The report, “Toxic Air: The Case For Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants,” reveals that “Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.”

What’s the biggest culprit? “Coal-fired power plants that sell electricity to the grid produce more hazardous air pollution in the U.S. than any other industrial pollution sources.”

Children are particularly at risk. Approximately 13,000 children have lifelong learning disabilities as the result of mercury exposure in North Carolina according to the state’s epidemiologist. Pound for pound, children eat, drink and breathe more than adults do. Their bodies take in proportionally larger amounts of environmental toxins than adults’ bodies do. Their lungs, brains and other organs are still developing and therefore especially at risk from exposure to toxics from coal like arsenic, mercury and lead.

In addition, asthma strikes 1 out of every 10 school children and is the number one illness that causes kids to miss school in the United States. Children are at the greatest health risk from air pollution because they are more likely to be active outdoors and their lungs are still developing.

Coal Ash

Coal ash is what’s left over when coal is burned. Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Coal ash is either stored dry or in wet ponds as it is here on Mountain Island Lake. Coal ash ponds are not subject to any federal regulation, and there is little monitoring of their effects on the surrounding environment.

Coal ash on Mountain Island Lake (Source: Catawba

At Riverbend Steam Station here on Mountain Island Lake, the toxic coal ash is stored in two unlined ponds, both ranked as “High Hazard” by the EPA. One pond is 41 acres wide and 80 feet deep. The other is 28 acres wide and 70 feet deep.

A “High Hazard” ranking indicates that a failure at the pond can cause economic loss, environmental damage, or damage to infrastructure. If high hazard ponds fail, they will probably cause a loss of human life. The EPA only began evaluating coal ash after the Kingston TVA spill in Tennessee in December of 2008.

Aftermath of coal ash spill in Kingston, TN

An in-depth review of monitoring data from coal ash ponds located next to all 14 coal-burning power plants in North Carolina has revealed that all of them are contaminating groundwater with toxic metals and other pollutants — in some cases at levels exceeding 380 times state groundwater standards.

 The analysis was conducted by Appalachian Voices’ Upper Watauga Riverkeeperteam based on data submitted to state regulators by Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the state’s two largest investor-owned electric utilities. The companies conducted the tests as part of a self-monitoring agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Neither has disputed the results.

Coal ash spills, leaks and leaches into surface and ground water, are absorbed by fish and other animals, and can even be delivered by the air people breathe.

Coal ash spill on Lake Michigan in 2011

Contaminated water from the coal ash ponds is released directly into Mountain Island Lake. The state and federal government put no restrictions on how much arsenic Duke Energy can release into Mountain Island Lake. Water is released from the ponds daily and high concentrations of arsenic have been found at the discharge site. Arsenic is a known carcinogen.

Riverbend Discharge Culvert into Mountain Island Lake

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers has stated that Riverbend will close in 2015. What will happen to the ash ponds is less clear. Rogers also said there are no “plans” for anything else on the site.

(Sources: Energy Information Administration, Physicians for Social Responsibility Report: “Coal’s Assault on Human Health, American Lung Association, NY Times, Raising Elijah, by Dr. Sandra Steingraber, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, 60 Minutes)

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