Coal: Bad in Stockings, Worse in Lungs

Answers about our reliance on coal

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This piece was originally published in EarthShare’s blog, one of Earthjustice’s partner groups working toward connecting people and workplaces with effective ways to support critical environmental causes. This featured Q&A reveals the answers about our reliance on coal.

Q: Why is coal such a dangerous source of energy?

A: For more than a century, coal has been used as a primary source of energy for electricity generation, steel production and cement manufacturing. But each step associated with energy generation from coal threatens our environment and our health.

Mining coal destroys entire ecosystems. In Appalachia, the practice of mountaintop removal mining is common, and entire mountaintops are blown apart to get at thin seams of coal. The rubble is dumped into nearby valleys, poisoning headwaters that provide drinking water for millions of Americans. As coal is burned in power plants, it produces mercury and arsenic as well as other chemicals that combine to form smog, soot, and acid rain, causing 13,200 premature deaths every year. This toxic air pollution can also impair development in children and cause cancer and other health problems.

In the U.S., coal plants are a top source of carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that exacerbates global warming. After coal is burned, the remaining coal ash poses catastrophic risks to nearby communities. A dumpsite in Kingston, TN that spilled in 2008 released over a billion gallons of coal ash across 300 acres, poisoning two rivers and destroying dozens of homes.

Q: The proportion of electricity coming from coal-fired power plants has dropped from approximately 50% for most of the past two decades to 38% in 2012. Why has this happened?

A: Using coal to generate power is an expensive proposition, no matter how many times the coal industry tries to claim otherwise.  We are seeing throughout the country that it is far less costly to pursue energy efficiency, wind power, and other cleaner alternatives than to invest in aging coal plants.

Q: What role has Earthjustice played in this transition?

A: Earthjustice’s first mission is to keep coal in the ground by stopping mountaintop removal mining. Next, Earthjustice uses the power of laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to establish stringent environmental standards for coal plants and require plants to meet those standards. These new standards put an economic incentive on the industry to consider cleaner, renewable resources.  Thanks to litigation and advocacy by Earthjustice and others, we now have cleaner emission standards for power plants. We are also working to establish and enforce strong standards for the disposal of coal ash.

And, finally, we work to ensure that utility customers are not required to pay for investment in or operation of coal plants that are no longer cost-effective to operate, and to advocate for thorough analyses of energy efficiency and renewable energy as the best options for replacing coal plants.

Q: What are some of Earthjustice’s notable victories in this area over the last couple of years?

A: Four victories from the past couple of years really stand out.

First, in 2012, Kentucky Power Company sought to raise its customers’ electric rates by 34% in order to invest nearly $1 billion retrofitting its aging Big Sandy coal plant. After Earthjustice challenged that proposal on the grounds that retiring and replacing the coal plant would be less costly and better for the environment, the company withdrew its proposal. The Big Sandy plant is now slated for retirement, which will avoid 6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Second, Earthjustice has worked for years to challenge the proposed Sunflower coal plant in Kansas. In October 2013, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit that Earthjustice brought that the air permit for the Sunflower plant had been issued illegally without emission limits to require compliance with new air standards. This win came on the heels of a federal court ruling that the federal government had violated the law by writing off federal debt and giving other approvals for the Sunflower plant without first undertaking an environmental analysis.

Third, in 2013, Earthjustice celebrated a victory on behalf of Appalachian communities, after going to court to support the EPA’s decision to veto the Spruce Mine permit that would have obliterated some of Appalachia’s most scenic mountains and poisoned drinking water sources.

An fourth, in October, a federal court agreed with Earthjustice that the EPA has a mandatory duty to review and revise if necessary its waste regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act every three years, including its solid waste regulations as they relate to coal ash disposal. The EPA is now required to provide a schedule for finalizing the first ever federal coal ash regulations, which were proposed in 2010 and have since languished.

Q: What’s a little-known fact about coal?

A: The costliness of coal becomes more evident once you factor in the significant damage that it does to public health. Our partner, Physicians for Social Responsibility, hypothesize that if deaths were segregated out due to exposure to coal-related pollutants, it would easily be in the top 10 causes of death among Americans. A 2009 study by the National Research Council found that the human health costs of air pollution from coal plants totals at least $65 billion per year.

Q: What is Earthjustice currently focusing its efforts on?

A: Coal power plants threaten communities—and our planet—and we’ll continue to fight to keep coal in the ground and pursue clean energy options. Across the country right now, decisions about whether to retrofit or retire specific coal plants are being made, and those decisions are only going to be made once. Earthjustice is going to remain all-hands-on-deck, and continue to fight for clean energy and public health.

Shannon Fisk is the director of State Electric Sector Advocacy. Prior to his current role, he served as managing attorney for the Coal Program, and led Earthjustice in pushing the nation to become less dependent on its aging coal fleet, stopping uneconomic investments in dirty power plants, and making way for untapped renewable energy resources and innovation in energy efficiency.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.