Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Climate & Energy

Economic action to stop global warming


Coal: Why It's Dirty

CoalCoal-fired power plant emissions contain many toxic elements and compounds, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOx), particulate matter, hydrogen chloride (HCl), hydrogen fluoride (HF), arsenic, and heavy metals like chromium, cadmium, and mercury. They are also the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading culprit in global warming.  These substances have major health and environmental effects.  See the Clean Air Task Force’s report [PDF].

Climate Change

  • Coal is the absolute dirtiest of all energy sources and the greatest contributor to global warming: coal-fired power plants are responsible for over 83% of the CO2 pollution since 1990, and have the highest ratio of CO2 output per unit of electricity out of all the fossil fuels [US DOE]. The top three countries in the world building new coal plants are also among the top five for CO2 emissions per capita – the US (#1), China (#2), and India (#5) [UCSUSA].
  • Unless we move quickly to reduce and clean up our use of coal as an energy source, we will pass the tipping point beyond which the effects of global warming become irreversible.
  • Get some Fast Facts about coal and climate change.

Mountaintop Removal / Strip Mining

  • Strip mining, also known as mountaintop removal (MTR), flattens mountains and devastates ecosystems.  In this process, forests are clear-cut to expose the tops of mountains, which are then blown off with explosives.  Coal is extracted using large machinery and the unused soil and rock are dumped into adjacent valleys, filling them up and creating a flat landscape.
  • The coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land, but this rarely occurs.  Even if it does, the mountain ecosystem can never be fully restored.
  • MTR also produces massive amounts of toxic waste that must be stored in slurries, which may endanger nearby towns (see boxes under Toxic Waste).

Toxic Waste

  • Both coal mining and burning generate enormous amounts of liquid waste in the form of slurry, containing carcinogenic compounds and toxic heavy metals.  The slurry is stored in large lagoons that sometimes leak or break, resulting in slurry floods and water contamination.
  • Slurry spills happen all the time, but some of them are especially disastrous. In both 2000 and 2008, coal-slurry ponds in Kentucky and Tennessee burst, spilling more toxic waste into the surrounding communities than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. In summer 2010, the EPA proposed regulating coal slurry (also known as coal ash) as hazardous waste for the first time. (Green America is currently running a campaign to supply public comment on this issue to the EPA.)
  • Fossil fuel combustion yields over 100 million tons of waste each year. [CATF]

Acid Rain

  • Acid rain is a broad term for any rain, snow, fog, gas, or particles that contain higher than normal amounts of nitric acid and sulfuric acid.
  • The acids are formed when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) enter the atmosphere and react with water, oxygen, or other chemicals.
  • In the U.S., 59% all SO2 and 18% of all NOx emissions come from coal-fired power plants.  [EPA]
  • Acid rain causes:
    • Increased acidification of waterways, killing fish and other aquatic life
    • Tree and soil damage
    • Accelerated decay of buildings and statues

Air Pollution

  • Pollution from coal-burning power plants causes an estimated 30,000 deaths a year in the United States – that’s more than drunken driving, AIDS, or homicides. [CATF]
  • Fine particles and oxygen-blocking gases produced when coal is burned are linked to asthma, heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer.
  • NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sunlight to produce smog, which causes many kinds of health problems when inhaled.

Toxic Emissions

  • “Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S.” [EPA]
  • Emissions from coal-fired power plants have been found to contain 67 air toxins that are either known or suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins that can cause a number of developmental and respiratory problems.  The most dangerous of these toxins is mercury.
  • Mercury is released when coal is burned and falls to the earth, ultimately making its way into the water, contaminating fish.  Humans become contaminated from eating the fish.  47 states and territories issued fish consumption advisories for mercury in 2004. Mercury is most dangerous as a developmental toxin, causing brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, and other problems in fetuses and breastfeeding babies of contaminated mothers.


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