New Look at an Old Problem

By Dick Clapp

An ambitious paper was released in Boston last week, with subsequent media coverage in local, national and international outlets (see, for example the New York Times' Green Blog and Reuters). The first author, Paul Epstein, was interviewed on the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, which was anchored in the Boston Harbor as part of its month-long "Coal Free Future Tour." The paper, which was just published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, was the result of a two-year collaborative effort that I participated in, as did Celeste Monforton, other academics from coal-mining states, activists opposing mountain-top removal in Kentucky, and foundation representatives. The primary focus of the work was to provide a full-cost accounting of the entire life cycle of coal, to the extent that present data and modeling methods allow this. The "bottom line" is that the annual estimated cost of coal-fired electricity in the U.S. is $345 billion, or 18 cents per kilowatt hour more than the currently estimated cost of this electricity. The report sums this up by saying that "coal carries a heavy burden."

The new look that this report (full version here, pamphlet with executive summary here) provides is a consideration the full range of health and environmental hazards that result from exploration, mining, processing, transport, and combustion of coal and the subsequent waste that is released into air and water from this fuel source. It goes beyond the carbon emissions calculations done by many others, showing the excess carbon dioxide generated by coal combustion compared to oil or natural gas, and documents and assigns monetary value to the human lives lost, disease burden created, and ecological costs of environmental degradation. Special focus is placed on Appalachia, where mine disasters such as the Upper Big Branch explosion have been carefully documented here over the past year. The report notes that over 100,000 deaths due to accidents have occurred in U.S. coal mines since 1900, and twice that many deaths have occurred due to black lung disease..

One further impact of coal mining that is not fully documented, and therefore is not in the report, is the previous use of abandoned underground coal mines as dumpsites for chemical wastes. This has occurred in Northeast Pennsylvania in an area that is now being investigated because of a cluster of cases of the blood disorder polycythemia vera. While the health studies that may help determine whether there is a link between this rare malignant disease and past practices such as injection of chemical wastes into abandoned coal mines have not been completed, there is serious concern about the public health impacts of this now-abandoned practice. One other lingering impact of underground coal mining in Pennsylvania, which is mentioned briefly in the report, is the fifty-year underground fire that continues to this day.

So, although this report is an attempt to take a comprehensive look at the full costs of coal, some of these will perhaps never be understood. It nevertheless helps put this energy source into new perspective as we grapple with the transition to greener and more sustainable ways of meeting the needs of future generations.

Dick Clapp is an epidemiologist who has forty years experience in public health practice, research and teaching. He is Professor Emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at the U. of Mass.- Lowell School of Health and Environment. He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.

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I especially appreciate how the authors present the impacts as Measurable, Economic, or Qualitative.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 23 Feb 2011 #permalink

I have Polycythemia Vera. My maternal grandparents grew up in the coal mining town of Mahonoy City, south of Eagleton. I would doubt that living there changed their genes, and thus mine, but there is always a faint possibility. Their daughter, my mother, lived to 97 without apparent PV. But the grandparents themselves--who knows? My grandfather Martin Elliott died of injuries in a railway accident; his wife lived to be old but had no medical care due to poverty, even in modern times, so who could tell if she had PV? My Mayo hematologist thinks PV is hereditary. But if you inherit something, you inherit from someone.

I inherited Porphyria from my father, whose Scottish relatives apparently got "lucky" centuries ago. Identifying Porphyria is not done well; tests are unstable, easily compromised, doctors don't know much about it.

A terrific article, comprehensive and well documented. It's a must read for anyone who thinks that "clean coal" is really clean -- it shows that to capture and sequester carbon, you make the whole process less efficient and have to burn a lot more coal to get the same amount of electricity. This means that the upstream impacts (e.g. emissions, ash, ecological destruction) are all increased to obtain a net reduction in carbon emissions. As far as the NE Polycythemia Vera cluster, both emissions from numerous coal burning plants both upwind and in the cluster area as well as fugitive fly ash are potential causes of this rare blood cancer. The authors might zero in on this area.