April saw the UK manage 76 consecutive coal-free hours of electricity – partly due to renewables and partly due to lower demand. (Coal use increased when the Beast from the East hit and the cost of gas spiked.)
This coincides nicely with a Royal Society of Chemistry book I am currently reading; ‘Coal in the 21st Century’. My interest is mainly from an Energy Manager’s background; the burning of coal being responsible for 31% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Living in the UK, where coal use has dropped by 80% in the last 5 years, and where coal is expected to be phased out by 2025, I don’t think too much about the direct health effects of coal anymore. (I was born post-Clean Air Act before which the world was in black and white and you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.) But, whilst climate change is, according to the Lancet, the biggest threat to human health of the 21st Century, for a lot of the world’s population the health issues related to coal are much more immediate than those from climate change, which sometimes seem distant both geographically and temporally.
Suffice it to say that I am halfway through the book and it has already opened my eyes to the reasons that burning coal for electricity generation is something we should be stopping with all haste.
The issues with coal start with the mining – even ignoring the environmental aspects. Miners themselves, are often exposed to dust, causing Black Lung Disease, with underground mining obviously much worse than surface mining. Then there are the accidents, which when they do happen, often kill many in one go.
The mined coal doesn’t automatically resemble the shiny black anthracite that some of us remember from our childhood. It is brought out along with a lot of impurities and waste which have to be cleaned off. This may be stored on the surface near the mining complex, polluting ground and surface water with toxins and acidic runoff. Those living adjacent to surface coal mines in the USA have an increased mortality due to the toxins emitted from the process. Water is used to clean the coal, the waste from this process is stored in large ponds behind dams. These are not checked for leakage and there have been cases of complete collapse, causing millions of gallons of toxic waste and water to pour into nearby towns.
Burning the coal causes air and water pollution. The air pollution comes from some the expected pollutants, and some lesser known ones. These include PM2.5 – particulate matter that can make it into lungs, bringing all sorts of nasties with it. PM2.5 is linked to various cancers as well as stroke, respiratory and heart disease. Also on the list are NOx and SOx, causes of acid rain and respiratory problems, Mercury about which I don’t think much else needs to be said (445 tonnes is released each year from burning coal for electricity) as well as Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, formaldehyde and many other metals. Some of these are scrubbed from the air, so at least they aren’t dispersed as far. However, they still end up in the waste ash that comes out of the coal station; its disposal is a major health issue.
The coal ash contains many metals and toxins, in even greater concentrations than in the coal itself. Whilst the toxicological effects of many of them are known individually, there has been little to no research on the synergistic effects of these pollutants combined. The ash is created in huge volumes; in the USA it is estimated that 140 million tonnes are generated each year, this is then stored in dry landfills and wet ponds. The nature of many of the toxins in ash, such as mercury and other metals, means that they persist in the environment, never degrading, and they are likely to remain a problem for decades, if not centuries. The dry landfills are not usually required to be covered, thus exposing nearby communities to airborne pollutants either directly, or as they settle onto land. The wet ponds also have containment issues, with liners not always employed, allowing the water to leach into ground water thus contaminating drinking water, or entering the food chain through contaminated fish. Then, as mentioned earlier, there is the potential for the walls containing the water to break, thus releasing the concentrated toxins into the local water courses and often onto land and into buildings.
There are many examples of coal mining and power generation polluting the local environment and causing health issues cited in the book that I am reading. All of the examples are in the USA where, until recently at least, one would hope there is some degree of regulation. (I haven’t read the chapter on regulation yet.) But the majority of new coal-fired power stations planned or in construction are in India and China, where there are already examples of much weaker regulation for environmental protection (see my earlier post about antibiotic manufacture) and where the local communities are more likely to draw water directly from local wells and to fish from local rivers.
Whilst there are pressing climate change arguments for removing coal from the energy mix, surely the dirty nature of its production and use, and the health impact on all those living nearby make keeping it in the ground even more of an imperative.