Coal Mines Clouding America’s Air
A coalition of conservation groups filed suit late last week 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.
Black Thunder coal mine. A poisonous gas that reacts with sunlight to form ozone, nitrogen dioxide forms from blasting at strip coal mines, which creates poisonous orange clouds. (WildEarthGuardians) View more photos.
“It’s time to stop giving the coal industry a free pass to pollute the air we depend upon for our health, well-being, and our safety,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of four groups bringing the lawsuit. “With coal mines spewing methane, dust, toxic orange clouds, and other dangerous gases, we need a national response that puts clean air first. We need EPA to take action.”
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 ability 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, 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.
In June 2010 four conservation groups petitioned the EPA to list coal mines as a source of harmful air pollution under the Clean Air Act. This listing would require the agency to ensure that the best systems of emission reduction are used to keep coal-mine air pollution in check. EPA has set such clean-air standards for gravel mines, coal-fired power plants, coal-processing plants and dozens of other sources, but not for coal-mine pollution.
“Setting pollution limits for coal mines is a real no-brainer,” said Vera Pardee with the Center for Biological Diversity, another plaintiff in the suit. “There’s huge potential here for reducing dangerous air pollution—including from closed mines that aren’t producing coal anymore—while we transition as quickly as possible away from coal and other dirty fossil fuels.”
The lawsuit comes as attention has increasingly focused on methane emissions from coal mines. Methane is a major safety hazard, contributing to a number of mine catastrophes over the years, including the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia. But releasing methane from mines also worsens climate change, which EPA has determined is itself a threat to public health.
Luckily, off-the-shelf technology already exists that permits mines to operate safely while reducing or eliminating methane pollution. 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.
Overall, the EPA estimates more than 85 percent of all U.S. coal-mine methane emissions can be eliminated at a cost of $15/ton, although when factoring in health benefits, a 2006 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the payback could be as much as $240/ton of methane reduced.
“Methane is a dangerous gas, but it’s probably the most cost-effective to control,” said Aaron Isherwood with the Sierra Club, which also brought the lawsuit. “The health, safety and climate benefits of reducing methane from coal mines are simply too important to ignore.”
In addition, EPA already regulates other forms of methane pollution. The EPA has established national limits on methane emissions from landfills, and the agency’s own reports show methane controls at coal mines can be exceptionally cost-effective.
The groups called on the EPA to respond to their petition within 180 days. Nearly a year and a half later, the agency still has not responded, prompting the groups to file suit today over the agency’s unreasonable delay.
“The evidence clearly shows that air pollution from coal mines is endangering our health and well-being across the country,” said Ted Zukoski, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, the law firm bringing the suit. “Other industries are already required to do their part to protect the air we breathe. It’s time for the EPA to hold the coal industry accountable for its air pollution, too.”
Earthjustice filed the suit last Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
- Read the groups’ June 2010 petition
- Read the NAS study
- Read the groups’ complaint
- View images of air methane venting at coal mines, orange clouds and other images, at WildEarth Guardians’ Flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wildearth_guardians/sets/72157627911833655