The Protracted Costs of Coal Mining

The thoughts and prayers of people all across the country are with the families of the 25 miners who died in a coal mine explosion earlier today, and with those of the 4 miners who are still missing. When something dramatic and concrete like an explosion occurs, it galvanizes attention. The media covers the story. People can put themselves in the shoes of the victims and feel the agony of the loss in their hearts. What’s more difficult to grapple with are more diffuse kinds of industrial tragedies — side-effects of the profit-maximizing process that that rather than dramatically and suddenly killing by the dozen, instead slowly and incrementally impact vast numbers of people around the country or the entire world. But inspired by today’s coverage of the accident, I went looking on the Internet for information about a more comprehensive look at the public health impact of the American coal industry and the results are, frankly, a bit shocking.

Here’s an October 2009 Bill Sweet post: from the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ blog

A report issued on Oct. 19 by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine estimates damages to public health and the immediate physical environment from power plant and vehicular emissions. The overall effect is to reduce estimates of how many deaths result from power plant pollution by a factor of three or four. But the numbers are still shockingly high, and total estimated economic damages are very substantial. The national cost of power plant emissions in 2005 is put at $62 billion, and the damage from automotive emissions—from light vehicles, as well as medium- and heavy-duty trucks—at $56 billion. Given the report’s valuation of a premature human death at $6 million, those estimates imply that about 10,000 people die each year from exposure to coal power plant emissions, and about 10,000 from vehicular emissions.

Or consider this from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

People who live in counties where lots of coal is mined are much more likely to suffer from an array of chronic, life-threatening health problems, according to a new study published in April’s American Journal of Public Health.

The study, “Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia,” found that in the 14 counties where the biggest coal mining operations are located residents reported higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes, and lung and kidney disease. In each of those counties, mining topped 4 million tons of coal a year.

This is all completely leaving the impact of climate change aside. And it’s sobering stuff. Obviously we all depend on electricity to live our lives, and many communities depend on coal jobs to provide their livelihood. But it’s clear that this is an industry awash in problems, and it embodies a mode of economic existence we should be trying to move beyond.