What Is The Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry?

Coal production.
Coal production.

Coal mining, the process of extracting coal from the ground, is a common economic activity around the world. Coal is removed in a number of ways including: contour mining, strip mining, and mountaintop removal. After undergoing a cleansing process, coal is typically burned in order to produce electricity. The coal industry has a significantly negative environmental impact on the land, water, and air. It is responsible for producing pollution such as ash, sludge, slurry, arsenic, mercury, uranium, and other heavy metals that pollute the air and waterways.

Additionally, coal processing has a negative effect on human health. The World Health Organization reports that 1 million lives are shortened every year due to the impact of the coal industry. In the United States alone, approximately 24,000 deaths are caused by burning coal on a yearly basis. This article takes a closer look at the environmental impact the coal industry.

Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry On Land

As previously mentioned, coal mining and processing is responsible for contributing a significant amount of pollution to the environment. In addition, extraction techniques, such as mountaintop removal, change the surrounding landscape. In this extraction process, seams of coal are removed from the mountainside by using explosives to remove the top of the mountain, making the coal below easier to access. The excess land and debris, that was once the top of the mountain, is generally pushed into the valley below, a practice known as valley fill. This permanently alters the topography of the land, leading to obstructed waterways and increased flooding.

Coal mining also disrupts the normal use of land which could include: hunting, agriculture, livestock grazing, lumber, or even human settlements. Mining not only alters the topography of land, but also destroys the soil and pushes plants and animals from their natural habitat. This type of surface mining takes once fertile land and converts it into wasteland. Although underground mining is less noticeable, its damage is just as detrimental. In Germany, for example, thousands of homes have been damaged as a result of underground mining. A collapsed mine once caused a 4.0 earthquake In the Saar region of Germany, causing significant property damage.

Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry On Water

As previously mentioned, the practice of valley fills results in contaminated water and increased instances of flooding. This, however, is not the only impact of the coal industry on local water supplies. The coal mining industry requires the use of significant amounts of water for many of its procedures. This heavy water use has been held responsible for exhausting underground aquifers. Additionally, discharge water from mining sites trickles into the ground, contaminating local water sources. Above ground waterways near mining sites are often contaminated with heavy metals, acid mine drainage, toxic elements, and dissolved solids. Aquatic plants and animals are affected by both the contamination and an increased level of sediment in their habitats.

Coal powered electric plants produce significant amounts of ash, which is rich in calcium oxide. When this ash falls into nearby water sources, the calcium oxide interacts with chemicals in the water, creating sodium bicarbonate and other water soluble salts. These chemicals further interact with calcium and magnesium in local waterways, converting hard river water to soft, alkaline heavy water. When this water is used for irrigation purposes, it throws off the pH balance of the fertile land, turning it into alkaline sodic soil. Alkaline sodic soil has a low infiltration capacity, which means rain and other precipitation collect on top of the land instead of passing through to the groundwater below. This makes it nearly impossible to grow most agricultural crops.

Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry On Air

The coal industry, which includes coal mining and coal generated electric plants, is responsible for emitting at least 20 toxic chemicals into the air. These chemicals include: mercury, arsenic, lead, selenium, zinc, nickel, and radium (to name a few). Burning coal for electricity creates a number of greenhouse gases, which are released into the atmosphere. Of these greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide react with other chemicals in the air, creating fine particles that are transported across long distances. This long-distance movement impedes other communities from maintaining clean air. In addition, the wet cooling towers of coal powered electric plants emit drift, which is made up of tiny particulate matter that humans can breathe into their lungs. Some researchers believe that in China, for example, air pollution caused by burning coal for electricity is responsible for shortening the average lifespan by 5.5 years.

At sites with heavy coal content, fire is always a risk, especially if the coal is exposed. These fires may be caused by people, spontaneous combustion, or lightning. No matter what caused the fire, the smoke is poisonous and filled with toxic fumes. Underground coal seams may burn for long periods of time, causing immediate danger to any humans living nearby. In fact, in Centralia, Pennsylvania in the US, an unstoppable coal seam fire resulted in permanent evacuation.

Coal mining and excavation sites also contribute to air pollution. The explosions in these areas and the shipment of the extracted coal result in increased dust and diesel exhaust in the air. These contaminants contribute to decreased air quality, which is dangerous to the health of plants, mine workers, and residents in the surrounding area.

Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry On Wildlife

Because the coal industry has a negative impact on air, water, and land, it is also detrimental to wildlife. The most direct impact to wildlife is caused by removing and redistributing land, which changes the unique habitats of the area. Areas that has been completely destroyed by Cole excavation are no longer able to sustain vegetation nor provide shelter to animals. Larger species flee these habitats, while smaller species may be killed during the excavation process.

Fish are directly affected where valley fill occurs, or where sediment is dumped into waterways. This is because sediment may change water temperature, block light filtration, or bury spawning territories. These changes may impede growth and reproduction, or kill fish directly. In some cases, a new type of habitat is created that attracts and supports the production of invasive species. Waste pollution caused by the coal industry can take hundreds or even thousands of years to be resolved, especially where high acidity, high alkalinity, and heavy metal concentrations are present


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