Photos: Documenting The True Cost Of Coal

What if we factored the environmental and health impacts of burning coal into its cost? Economists say they would add up to about $500 billion per year — making coal’s true cost about $17.8 cents per kilowatt-hour generated.

But those costs are about more than just a number. They represent impacts on a human and environmental level that are difficult to quantify. In order to get beyond the simple economic arguments about coal, the Sierra Club has released a new photo documentary series called the “The Cost of Coal.”

They feature the stories of people like Lane and Kami Miller, a boy and his mother who live near a coal plant in Nevada.

Lane’s mother, Kami Miller, describers their battle with respiratory problems:


My son has the same problems. He has an inhaler, and at least once a month he has to use a nebulizer to open up his lungs. If I neglect it, he has to go on steroids or it can turn into pneumonia or bronchitis.

These people who come in and haul away the fly ash from the plant say it’s not harmful. But I say, “If it’s not harmful, why does your wife have to check you to make sure you didn’t bring any into the house? Why does the paint peel on your vehicle after you’ve been out there on a rainy day?”

Sometimes I wonder, Where did my son’s autism come from? I grew up on the hill above the tribal building, and I always wonder if it started there, with his development, because that’s where I was living when I was pregnant with him. The dust from the plant would come through the valley and then come up to us. We lived there for 10 years, and then I inherited a house down here, closer to the plant.

In West Virginia, people like Leo Cook and Marilyn Mullens have experienced the impact of mountaintop removal first hand.

Cook grew up in farming country wiped out by coal mining:

This mountaintop removal done wrecked West Virginia. Ain’t no way these trees are going to grow back. Ain’t no way. Might be little pine trees or a little locust tree or grass, but that’s it.

My neighbors — a lot of ’em don’t like me fighting the mountaintop removal. They say, “Leo, you got no business getting involved in that.” I say, “Well, one of these days you’re gonna wish you got involved in it. When it’s too late, it’s too late.”

I got a letter about a month or two ago that they’re gonna be blastin’ up over there, within a thousand foot of my house. A thousand foot ain’t that far away. They haven’t tried to buy my place, but I’m a’lookin’ for it.

I saw Lindytown disappear, and what happened in Lindytown, it’s gonna happen here in Bandytown too. It’s gonna happen right here. It’s comin’. It’s comin’.

Mullens, a converted activist, has been trying to channel her personal experiences and anger over the destruction from mining:

In the late ’90s, they started doing mountaintop-removal mining, which is where they just blow the tops off the mountains. They use tons of dynamite. There’s dust everywhere. They clearcut the trees. It’s just a big mess. Then in 2001 we had a horrible flood in the hollow where I live, and a lot of my friends and neighbors lost their homes. And we all knew that it was because there were no trees or topsoil on the mountain anymore. We knew that was what caused the flood, but according to the coal companies, it was an act of God, because it rained hard. In 2004 I was on active duty in California, and my dad called and said my home had come off its foundation. There was a big sinkhole. They were still doing blasting. My house sat for five years before I could sell it, and I had to take a loss. A lot of people don’t even have that option. That’s there home, that’s where they’ve always been, that’s all they have.

The photos have beautiful desperation to them. They remind me of a great documentary series called Coal: A Love Story that tells the stories of people living in coal country, both positive and negative.

Read all the stories and see the collection of photos at the Sierra Club’s Cost of Coal website.