At issue | June 25 Herald-Leader news story: "Coal industry takes more than it gives, study says."
The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea just released a report showing that hosting the coal industry costs Kentucky taxpayers nearly $115 million per year. In other words, the industry is a money sink for the state. As alarming as this is, there are many more — and worse — public costs associated with coal.
I am a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, originally from Pennsylvania. I am writing about coal for a Kentucky newspaper because last fall I worked on a research project that grew out of a partnership between MIT and the citizen's advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. My job was to document the public costs of coal that aren't reflected in the market price.
I'm writing to communicate some of my findings and to raise the idea that coal imposes severe costs not only on the coalfield communities of Eastern Kentucky but on everyone throughout the state, and literally, the world.
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Some of these costs are well known, such as black lung (which is still a serious problem), injury, permanent disability and death from the hazards facing miners. There are also environmental disasters like the Tennessee Valley Authority fly ash spill and the Martin County sludge pond disaster.
These costs, however, are only the beginning.
It is important to consider the impacts of coal from the time it is taken out of the ground to the time it is burned for energy. The public pays for coal in lower property values, loss of crops, timber, recreation and tourism, expensive litigation, destruction of land, stream burial, water pollution, damage to the water table, soil contamination, loss of habitat and marine life, toxic emissions, illness, fires, mud slides, floods, explosions, structural damage, road and rail stress, noise and ugly landscapes. Each deserves individual attention but I want to focus on two — the costs to public health and the global environment. Both are underreported, are gravely serious and show that the impacts of coal are not limited by geography.
If you live near a coal-burning power plant, you are paying for coal with your health. Burning coal produces pollution that spreads out into the surrounding area and causes higher than normal rates of sudden infant death syndrome, heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, kidney disease, hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A Harvard study reports that the risk of death for people living within 30 miles of a coal-burning plant is three to four times greater than for those living farther away. The Office of Management and Budget figures that if the pollution from burning coal were removed from the air, Kentucky — all residents, businesses, and state government — would collectively save $3.8 billion in public health costs. Any place burning coal pays these same costs.
Even those living far from coalfields and power plants pay a high price for coal. The prevailing winds carry coal emissions throughout the world, causing increased ozone, particulate pollution and acid rain. More significantly, a researcher at MIT found that over 33 percent of all greenhouse gases in the United States come from a handful of large coal-burning power plants.
Despite these costs, our society relies heavily on coal and it is unrealistic to expect that we will abandon it in the near term. Still, it is in everyone's interest to begin shifting investment toward less costly sources of energy and more sustainable economic enterprises.
Kentucky can be a leader in this transition. The solution will not be a single alternative but a diversification into several types of clean energy. Some people say we can make coal "clean" or take away its negative impacts, but right now there is no cost-effective way to do this. Regardless of the alternative course taken, change must occur: Coal is an obsolete and prohibitively expensive fuel source.