By Stephen Tuttle | March 16, 2019
Coal is neither beautiful nor clean. It is now and always has been the most destructive fossil fuel to extract, and the dirtiest to burn. Even with new technology that tries to scrub out pollutants, coal is still filthy.
Now, after more than two centuries of causing death, coal itself is dying.
The United States still has more than 8,600 coal-fired power plants that produce at least one megawatt of power. They provide 27 percent of our total power output. But that number is shrinking — more than 200 coal plants have shuttered since 2010 — and will continue to do so. Some plants are being replaced by natural gas, some by renewables, and some aren't being replaced by anything.
Coal will not be missed by most of us, and for good reason.
In 2016, the last year for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has, or is willing to share, data, coal burning produced a cornucopia of dangerous and unwanted toxins.
For example, coal burning plants produced 576,185 tonsof carbon monoxide, 197,286 tonsof particulates of the sort that get into our lungs, 82,400 pounds of lead, 77,108 pounds of arsenic, 45,676 pounds of mercury (42 percent of all the mercury pollution), and 9,332 pounds of cadmium, not to mention more than a million tons of sulfur dioxide.
All of it is either carcinogenic or known to cause pulmonary disease and respiratory distress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 30,000 Americans die directly from particulate pollution every year.
Even the Trump Administration's wholesale deregulation of coal plants, which reversed efforts to curb both end-product pollution and environmental damage during extraction, won't be enough to save coal. It earned votes in coal country, but the industry is gasping its last, a fitting end to something that caused so many to do the same.
Though our lungs and our land will benefit from coal's demise, the cause has very little to do with a response to climate change, pressure from environmentalists, or even a faint concern for the environment or our health. It's way simpler than that.
The economics of coal is no longer tenable. Natural gas is now much cheaper and, as a bonus, burns much cleaner than coal. Renewables like wind and solar are cheaper still — less than a fifth the cost of coal.
The decline of coal has the added benefit of a cessation to the unimaginable environmental destruction caused by coal mining. Nearby streams and wetlands are destroyed, wastewater ponds leach into groundwater and frequently erupt beyond their man-made levees, coal dust destroys nearby woodlands and, of course, the mine workers themselves are exposed to life-threatening pollutants daily. What the EPA should have stopped long ago will now, finally, be stopped by economics.
This is a death that will benefit the vast majority of us but not everybody. Some coal industry workers will be left behind, absent some help. Coal mining operations, which employed more than 863,000 less than a century ago, now use less than 50,000. But that's still a significant economic demographic, men and women who will be without jobs and untrained for anything else.
A good example is the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-burning power plant outside of Page, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Operated by the Salt River Project (SRP), a quasi-governmental utility, the Navajo Generating Station is shutting down.
Some of the plant's 500 employees will transfer to other SRP power plants, but most will simply be out of a job. And the 300 employed at the Peabody coal mine that provides the fuel will also be laid off.
Not huge numbers in the overall picture but devastating on the Navajo Nation, where unemployment hovers around 45 percent, and 43 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. It's a scenario being played out around the country where mines are located in economically distressed regions.
There is a solution for displaced miners, though one not likely to be undertaken. At least some of the environmental damage around coal mines can be mitigated. The piles of toxic waste can be removed to a safer landfill designed to hold such substances. Streams can be cleaned. Waste ponds can be drained. The landscape can be restored to some semblance of what nature created.
It would require re-training but provide useful employment for many displaced miners for a very long time because there is much work to be done.
And, yup, the federal government should pay for the work since the federal government allowed this environmental destruction to take place. There is apparently a bottomless pit of available money, deficits be damned, so we should spend some to fix the damage we've created.
Coal's condition is terminal. No amount of deregulation will save it. Some residual coal dust will be all that's left.