From mining through final disposal of waste from coal-fired power plants, the use of coal produces a wide range of impacts on the natural environment and human health. Impacts begin with underground mining, which has long been notorious for its safety issues and health effects on miners as well as for surface subsidence (especially with longwall mining) and release of methane gases. Surface mining techniques are even more damaging, both in regions such as Central Appalachia, where mountaintop removal methods are deployed, and in deserts and prairies, where arid conditions make reclamation and restoration of underground water supplies difficult.
The next round of impacts occurs in connection with transport, including dust, coal spills, and disruption of communities by mile-long coal trains. At power plants, combustion of coal produces a medley of air pollutants, especially in older plants that lack modern emissions control equipment. Currently, there is no commercially viable way to control the most dangerous form of pollution created by coal plants, carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
Impacts do not end with the burning of coal. The billions of tons of coal combustion waste produced by power plants needs to be stored somewhere, often in waste sites that are inadequately engineered to avoid dangerous spills or leaching of hazardous chemicals into groundwater supplies. CoalSwarm includes profiles of hundreds of coal waste sites.
In recent years, a number of efforts have been made to estimate the economic value of the coal’s various impacts. These studies are summarized in “External costs of coal.”
Another area of research and activism is the disproportionate impact of coal on low-income and minority communities. These are described in “Environmental justice and coal” and “Coal plants near residential areas,” and “Coal and Native American tribal lands.”