Coal’s true cost includes collateral damage


Mining damage

Courtesy Mark Hersch


By Phil Coleman

In April, a government study completed for the province of Ontario, Canada, recommended closing several coal-fired power plants and turning to other forms of electricity production. The recommendation was based on careful analysis which demonstrated that coal is the most expensive source of electricity.

How is this possible? Ontario looked at the true cost of coal by factoring in the costs of health and environmental damage.

The report separated financial costs from external costs, and concluded that while the financial cost of a coal-fired power plan is $37 per mega-watt hour, the external costs associated with health and environmental damages raises that number to $164 per mega-watt hour. Health and environmental costs account for 77% of the total cost of coal-fired power generation.

But factor in the environmental cost of mining the coal to power the plants and the cost of a mega-watt goes even higher, probably six to seven times what we as consumers are paying.

Citizens in the Appalachian coal fields have long argued that the U.S. government has been unwilling to calculate the true cost of coal and point out that 150 years of mining has left behind thousands of miles of acid damaged streams, underground mine fires, houses destroyed by subsidence, wells and springs gone dry, giant gob piles, and unreclaimed open pits. And this damage has endured long after the mining companies disappeared or went bankrupt leaving coalfield citizens to live with the damage or tax payers to foot the bill for environmental clean-up.

Unfortunately, environmental damage is not just a matter of past history. Longwall mining destroys streams, springs, and ground water every day. This past summer, the dam at Ryerson Station State Park was destroyed by a longwall operation, and the lake was lost.  Although the public is not permitted near present-day dump sites, longwall mining is currently in the process of creating new gob piles and sludge ponds in southwestern Pennsylvania and filling valleys with rubble removed from the mines.
Even though bonding is supposed to create sufficient funds to correct unreclaimed mines, there is not nearly enough money to correct all the problems that mining leaves behind.

In the end, tax payers pay for most of the damage that is corrected, but the damage that is not corrected is paid for by coalfield citizens, downwind communities and forests, and downstream aquatic life.

Add the problems from mining to the problems power plants produce and it’s clear that we have a very expensive source of energy.
If consumers paid the bill for all this damage, they would suffer from the expense, but they would also learn to conserve and use electricity efficiently. And using less electricity would have the added bonus of reducing green house gasses.

We need a government that recognizes the true cost of coal and builds its energy policy accordingly.

Phil Coleman is a member of the Allegheny Group and has twice served as Chapter chair.


Published November 2005