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The Dangers of Coal-Burning Power Plants

June 28, 2012 ·  , Colley, Julie. Tuesday, 01 November 2011."The Dangers of Coal-Burning Power Plants". Retrieved from


Coal has been an integral part of American power generation since the late 1800s. While that technology has in some ways benefited our society, we now recognize the ecological hazards and health risks associated with using coal as an energy source. Coal by itself is not harmful; however, the byproducts of burning coal raise serious health and environmental issues. Another cause for concern is the vague laws governing the disposal of the toxic byproducts of coal-fired power plants, laws that allow each state to determine its own rules for its plant sites.

Coal Power-Plant Pollution
Coal-burning plants are some of the worst industrial polluters in the United States, producing approximately one-third of our carbon dioxide (CO2, a major contributor to global warming), 40% of our mercury (highly toxic if ingested or inhaled), one-quarter of our nitrogen oxide (an ingredient found in smog) and two-thirds of our sulfur dioxide (a component of acid rain). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contends that sulfur dioxide promotes heart disease and asthma, while nitrogen oxides destroy lung tissue.

Additional hazardous byproducts produced by coal-burning plants include, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, zinc, radionuclides and particulate matter. Each type of coal produces different levels of these pollutants, all of which negatively impact both the environment and our health.

Mercury, a known carcinogen, is of particular concern as it poisons fish in bodies of water miles away. Greenpeace reports that even at minimum levels, this neurotoxin has been shown to cause reduced intelligence in hundreds of thousands of children born annually. Mercury emissions occur at rates of approximately 25 pounds per 100 megawatts at the average coal plant, making coal-fired plants the largest single contributor of mercury pollution in the United States.

Radionuclides are unstable atoms that, if leaked into the environment, cause radioactive contamination. When people or animals are exposed to the contamination, they can suffer the effects of radiation poisoning including genetic issues such as cancer and abnormal or failed births. A coal-fueled plant has been known to produce more radioactive material than a nuclear power plant within industry regulations.

The American Lung Association (ALA) released a report in March 2011 offering this startling statistic: “Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.” The ALA report singled out coal-fired power plants as among the worst offenders.

Catastrophic Accidents
Beyond the day-to-day dangers of burning coal to produce energy, there is the devastating impact of plant malfunctions. In December 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) reported the failure of a holding pond used by a coal-fired electric plant. When heavy rains washed away the holding-pond dike, more than 2.2 million pounds of hazardous waste flooded 300 acres in east Tennessee. Even after the best cleanup effort, the area will remain polluted with dangerous byproducts for decades.

It remains impossible to quantify the amount of poisons released by the above incident, but in one year, this plant reportedly produced 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium, and 140,000 pounds of manganese, much of this held in the holding pond and all of which can cause cancer, liver damage, neurological trauma and more. The TVA, in conjunction with the EPA, warned that pets and children should avoid contact with the toxic materials.

The EPA reported that high levels of arsenic, lead and thallium were found in samples taken from downstream water sources, where hundreds of dead fish were found. While the authority is using heavy construction equipment to address the cleanup efforts, officials cannot predict how long it will take nor the final costs involved.

Clean Coal Claims
In order to reduce the devastating ecological and health effects of coal-fired power plants, coal-industry advocates are touting new “clean coal” technologies. As a start, many coal-powered plants are recycling some their dangerous byproducts into useful materials. For example, the byproducts of fly and bottom ash—previously dumped into landfills—are being transformed into concrete, asphalt and masonry blacks. Another byproduct, synthetic gypsum, is being used in the production of drywall and chalk.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups, however, believe there is no such thing as clean coal. They claim the coal industry’s touting of the term “clean coal” in their advertising is “greenwashing” or propagandizing. One environmental group even went so far as to produce a devastating parody of a coal-industry “clean coal” ad. These environmental advocacy groups favor phasing out coal-burning power plants entirely. As an alternative, they are pushing for the expansion of environmentally friendly power sources such as solar and wind energy.

One way or another, the days of coal-fueled power plants are numbered. Even if the dream of “clean coal” is achieved, it is only a matter of time before the finite supply of coal, like that of oil, runs out. In the meantime, it behooves us to work for increased safety regulation of coal plants to prevent the release of dangerous byproducts into our environment and our bodies, and to develop alternative energy technologies to replace coal.

The sooner the better.

Additional resources:
Meltdown or Mother Lode: The New Truth About Nuclear Power
Solar Thermal Energy: More Than Just Hot Air
Sahara Desert Sun: How Africa May One Day Power Europe
Leveraging the Sun: Daylighting and Passive Solar Heating
Shining a Light on Solar Panels: The Basics
Home Wind Power: Environmental Answers Blowin’ in the Wind
The Bloom Box: Does It Have the Power to Change the World?
Planet Sludge: Millions of Abandoned, Leaking Oil Wells Destined to Foul Our Future
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