Coal is the most abundant fuel source that is relatively inexpensive to produce and convert to useful energy. It is also the most popular, accounting for almost 40 percent of the total worldwide power generation.
However, the environmental impacts of coal have been identified and are associated with the production and use of this natural resource.
Coal is formed from pre-historic vegetation that accumulated about 300 million years ago when much of the Earth’s surface was covered in swamps. As the plants and trees in these swampy areas began to die, their remains sank into the swamp land, which eventually formed a dense material called peat.
Over time, layers of sediment and soil accumulated over the peat. The combination of heat from the Earth’s core and the pressure of the rocks and sediments caused the eventual formation of carbon-rich coal.
The use of coal can be traced back to around A.D. 50 from cinders in Roman ruins in Britain. There is also evidence to suggest that the Greeks used coal as a fuel in the 4th century. However, extensive mining of coal in Britain only started in the 13th century.
There are significant environmental impacts associated with coal mining. It could require the removal of massive amounts of topsoil, leading to erosion, loss of habitat, and pollution.
Coal mining causes acid mine drainage, which causes heavy metals to dissolve and seep into ground and surface water. Coal mine workers also sometimes face serious health problems, including lung disease from prolonged exposure to coal dust in mines.
However, serious engagement has been undertaken by environmentalists and scientists to proffer a more environmentally friendly way of mining coal and its usage.
Table of Contents
What is Coal?
Coal is a sedimentary, organic rock, that is composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which is readily combustible. It’s found in almost every country worldwide, predominantly in places where pre-historic forests and marshes existed before being buried and compressed over millions of years.
It is black or brownish-black and has a composition that consists of more than 50 percent by weight and more than 70 percent by volume of carbonaceous material, which can be burned for fuel and used to generate electricity.
Coal is formed from plant remains that have been compacted, hardened, chemically altered, and metamorphosed by heat and pressure over geologic time.
Interestingly, coal is the largest source of energy for generating electricity in the world, and the most abundant fossil fuel in the United States. Because coal takes millions of years to develop and there is a limited amount of it, it is a non-renewable resource.
Coal exists in underground formations called “coal seams” or “coal beds.” A coal seam can be as thick as 30 meters (90 feet) and stretch 1,500 kilometers (920 miles).
Coal seams exist on every continent. The largest coal reserves are in the United States, Russia, China, Australia, and India.
Coal, as a non-renewable fossil fuel, is combusted and used to generate electricity. However, the mining techniques and combustion are both dangerous to miners and hazardous to the environment.
In this article, we are going to look at the impacts of coal, coal mining, and coal power plants on the environment.
Environmental Impacts of Coal
1. Climate Change
Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel in the world, but its burning and use are associated with significant environmental impacts.
Climate change is coal’s most serious, long-term, global impact. Chemically, coal is mostly carbon, which, when burned, reacts with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas. When released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide works like a blanket, warming the earth above normal limits.
Some of the resultant effects of global warming include drought, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather, and species loss. The severity of those impacts is tied directly to the amount of carbon dioxide we release, including from coal plants.
In the United States, coal accounts for roughly one-quarter of all energy-related carbon emissions.
2. Air Pollution
Air pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, neurological problems, and other severe environmental and public health impacts.
When coal is burned, it releases several airborne toxins and pollutants. They include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Health impacts can range from asthma and breathing difficulties to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death.
Although limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have helped prevent some of these emissions, many plants don’t have the necessary pollution controls installed. The future of these protections remains unclear.
Impacts of Coal Mining
3. Water Pollution
Water pollution from coal includes the negative health and environmental effects of the mining, processing, burning, and waste storage of coal.
In the process of mining coal, coal sludge is given off. Coal sludge, also known as slurry, is the liquid coal waste generated by washing coal. It is typically disposed of at impoundments located near coal mines, but in some cases, it is directly injected into abandoned underground mines.
Since coal sludge contains toxins, leaks or spills can endanger underground water and surface waters. The minerals from the disturbed earth can seep into groundwater and contaminate waterways with chemicals that are hazardous to our health.
An example would be Acid Mine Drainage. Acid mine drainage (AMD) refers to the outflow of acidic water from coal mines or metal mines, often abandoned mines where ore- or coal-mining activities have exposed rocks containing the sulfur-bearing mineral pyrite.
Acidic water can flow out of abandoned coal mines. Mining has exposed rocks that contain the sulfur-bearing mineral pyrite. This mineral reacts with air and water to form sulfuric acid.
When it rains, the diluted acid gets into rivers and streams and can even seep into underground sources of water.
Lakes, rivers, streams, and drinking water supplies are all heavily impacted by coal mines and power plants.
4. Destruction of Landscapes and Habitats
Strip mining also known as surface mining involves the stripping away of earth and rocks to reach the coal underneath.
If a mountain happens to be standing in the way of a coal seam within, it will be blasted or leveled effectively leaving a scarred landscape and disturbing ecosystems and wildlife habitat.
5. Global Warming
Statistics show that methane released by coal mining accounts for about 10 percent of US releases of methane (CH4), a potent global warming gas.
Coal mine methane emissions from underground mining are often caught and used as town fuel, chemical feedstock, vehicle fuel, and industrial fuel, but very rarely is everything captured. Methane is less prevalent in the atmosphere as compared to carbon dioxide, but it is 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas.
Methane gas that occurs in coal deposits can explode if it concentrates in underground mines. This coal bed methane must be vented out of mines to make mines safer places to work. Some mines capture, use, or sell the coal bed methane extracted from their operations.
6. Deforestation and Erosion
According to a 2010 study, mountaintop removal mining has destroyed 6.8% of Appalachia’s forests.
As part of the process of clearing the way for a coal mine, trees are cut down or burned, plants are uprooted, and the topsoil is scraped away. This destroys the land (it can no longer be used for planting crops) and is prone to soil erosion.
The loosened topsoil can be washed away by rain, and the sediments get into rivers, streams, and waterways. Downstream, they can kill the fish and plant life and block river channels, which causes flooding.
7. Human Health Impact
Heavy metal toxins and carcinogens are released into the atmosphere and water bodies as part of coal mining and processing causing injury and death of workers mining coal; and the nearby population of communities within.
Health Hazards from coal dust inhalation can lead to black lung disease, cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, COPD, and kidney disease. The miners and those who live in nearby towns are the most affected.
Impacts of Coal Power Plants
8. Water Resources Loss
Water is used by thermoelectric generating facilities (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) to make electricity by converting the water into high-pressure steam to drive turbines. Power generation has been estimated to be second only to agriculture in being the largest domestic user of water.
Once through this cycle, the steam is cooled and condensed back into the water, with some technologies using water to cool the steam, increasing a plant’s water usage.
In coal plants, water is also used to clean and process the fuel itself. For instance, the United States Geological Survey estimates that thermo-electric plants withdrew 195 billion gallons of water per day in 2000, of which 136 billion gallons was fresh water.
9. Air Pollution
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an average year, a typical coal plant of 500 megawatts generates the following amount of air pollutants 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is equivalent to chopping down 161 million trees;
CO2 pollution is a major contributor to global warming and climate change, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain and forms small airborne particles that can cause lung damage, heart disease, and other illnesses, 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), equivalent to half a million late-model cars.
NOx leads to the formation of smog, which inflames lung tissue and increases susceptibility to respiratory illness, 500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause bronchitis, reductions in lung function, increased hospital and emergency room admissions, and premature death, 220 tons of hydrocarbons, which contribute to smog formation, 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO).
This causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease with other toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and uranium which are released in alarming amounts also leading to cancer and several neurological disorders in humans.
10. Thermal pollution
Thermal pollution is the degradation of water quality by any process that changes ambient water temperature. A common cause of thermal pollution is the use of water as a coolant by power plants and industrial manufacturers.
When the water used as a coolant is returned to the natural environment at a higher temperature, the change in temperature impacts organisms by decreasing oxygen supply and affecting ecosystem composition.
Research is underway to address the issues facing our environment from the production and usage of coal.
As in the case of emissions of CO2, the method implored to address this is known as “carbon capture,” which separates CO2 from emissions sources and recovers it in a concentrated stream. The CO2 can then be injected underground for permanent storage, or “sequestration.”
Reuse and recycling can also reduce the environmental effects of coal production and use. Land that was previously used for coal mining can be reclaimed and used for airports, landfills, and golf courses.
Waste products captured by scrubbers can be used to produce products such as cement and synthetic gypsum for wallboard.
And in the aspect of industries, several coal industries have found several ways to reduce sulfur and other impurities from coal. These industries have also found more effective ways of cleaning coal after it is mined, and some coal consumers use low-sulfur coal.
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Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.