A study from Harvard University has pegged the cost to American society from the negative impacts of coal at about $500 billion. Full cost accounting means considering the entire range of benefits and damage caused by coal. In this case it means accounting for the impact of mercury released when coal is burned, the contribution to climate change, the impacts of mountaintop removal, the deaths of many miners to accidents, disease and so forth. “The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself. The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights,” said the study’s lead author, Paul Epstein from Harvard University. (Source: Reuters.com)
Coal burning is one of the largest contributors to climate change in the United States. A little less than half of the electricity produced in the United States comes from coal power plants. Last September a report was published on the health impacts associated with coal burning. It stated that about 13,000 premature deaths were linked to coal for the year 2010. Additionally there were about 20,000 coal-related heart attacks for the same period. The report also mentioned how much a lifespan can be reduced due to constant exposure to air pollution: “And although research suggests fine particles reduce the average life span of the general population by a few years, the life of an individual dying as a result of exposure to air pollution may be shortened by 14 years.” (Source: Clean Air Task Force)
Most of the country’s coal-based power plants are located on the East Coast and the mid-Atlantic region. The Harvard study said that 100,000 miners have lost their lives since 1900 due to mining accidents. Also 200,000 of them have died from black lung disease which results from exposure to coal dust on the job. Mountaintop removal has caused severe damage to natural habitats in the West Virginia region: “The report says that, without further restrictions, 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests — an area twice the size of Rhode Island — will be eliminated by 2012.” (Source: USAToday.com)
The coal industry receives federal support in the form of subsidies. Between 2002 and 2008 they totaled about $17 billion. (Source: Sierra Club) Both Obama and Bush have supported coal in the past. Obama is still supporting “clean coal,” though it causes a lot of environmental damage and is a fossil fuel.