Study points to coal's 'hidden costs' to U.S. economy

Posted: Feb 17, 2011

Written by

MANUEL QUINONES, Environment & Energy Daily
Coal train

A report by Harvard Medical School researchers released today by Greenpeace puts the annual "hidden costs" of extracting, transporting, processing and burning coal at at least $345 billion and maybe as much as $523 billion a year.

"The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use," said the study's lead author, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the medical school and an acknowledged "green energy" booster.

Using data from other studies, the report attempts to quantify the public cost of coal linked to environmental degradation, pollution and health problems affecting people in mining communities. It estimates coal's public health burden in Appalachian communities at $74.6 billion. The study is scheduled for publication this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The report says "mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease were highest in heavy coal mining areas of Appalachia, less so in light coal mining areas, lesser still in noncoal mining areas in Appalachia, and lowest in noncoal mining areas outside of Appalachia."

The study also assessed deaths caused by transporting coal, noting that most of the rail traffic in the United States is dedicated to shipping coal.

"Accounting for these hidden costs doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kilowatt-hour, making wind, solar and other renewable very economically competitive," Epstein told reporters.

The report recommends that American energy policy start phasing out coal. It also calls for an end to mountaintop-removal mining and removing government subsidies for coal.

"Elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water have been found in coal mining areas, along with ground water contamination consistent with coal mining activity in areas near coal mining facilities," the study says.

Epstein's findings contradict studies promoted by the coal industry that tout coal as an abundant, reliable and affordable source of energy. The latest, prepared for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), says coal has helped keep U.S. electricity prices relatively low (Greenwire, Feb. 10).

ACCCE spokeswoman Lisa Miller said Epstein's study "ignores the substantial benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families and businesses. Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of living and better health."

Miller added that the coal industry will continue efforts to make energy production cleaner.

"Coal-fueled power plants will spend an estimated $115 to $125 billion by 2015 on emission technologies to comply with clean air requirements," she said.

Industry sources question funding for Epstein's and other studies, saying they're meant to advance an anti-coal agenda. The Rockefeller Family Foundation backed the Epstein report with support from the Energy Foundation, whose stated mission is to "advance energy efficiency and renewable energy."

Industry leaders and coal-state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say the coal industry helps the economy in historically disadvantaged regions like Appalachia.

Epstein takes issue with industry claims that coal can be clean and questions its potential for creating jobs.

"In Appalachia, as levels of mining increase, so do poverty rates and unemployment rates, while educational attainment rates and household income levels decline," his report says.

Epstein cites continuing problems with black lung disease and other safety issues for miners. "Since 1900 over 100,000 [miners] have been killed in coal mining accidents in the United States," the report says.

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