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Coal Mines Clouding America's Air

Orange cloud over the Black Thunder coal mine. These clouds are nitrogen oxide gases, which are poisonous.

Orange cloud over the Black Thunder coal mine. These clouds are nitrogen oxide gases, which are poisonous.

Photo courtesy of WildEarth Guardians

Case Overview

A coalition of groups—including WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Environmental Integrity Project represented by Earthjustice—have filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to protect public health and the environment from air pollution from coal mines in the United States.

Nationwide, coal mines release a noxious group of harmful air pollutants known to be dangerous and in some cases lethal, including:

  • Methane: Coal mines release 10 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. A greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide, methane is also explosive.
  • Nitrogen dioxide: A poisonous gas that reacts with sunlight to form ozone, nitrogen dioxide forms from blasting at strip coal mines, which creates poisonous orange clouds. In Wyoming alone, the amount of nitrogen dioxide released by strip mining equals the amount normally released by 1.12 million passenger vehicles.
  • Particulate matter: Dust and debris are released during all stages of mining, and in the United States coal mines release more than 17,000 tons of particulate matter annually, including more than 10,000 tons of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or 1/28th the width of a human hair, the most dangerous form of particulates.
  • Volatile organic compounds: Gases that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. Coal mines nationwide release more than 1,790 tons of volatile organic compounds every year.

EPA’s failure to address coal mine pollution is even more inexplicable given that off-the-shelf technology exists that permits mines to operate safely while reducing or eliminating much of the pollution, especially methane. Mines around the globe are flaring methane, capturing it and putting it in pipelines for commercial or household use, or burning it on-site to generate electricity.

Case Updates