How Many Lives does Coal Energy and Oil Energy Have ?

Ken Silverstein at Forbes asks “How Many Lives Does Nuclear Energy Have ?”

“The nuclear disaster in Japan should have put the brakes on new plants in the United States,” says Lou Zeller, with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

The Fukushima nuclear plants were damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that followed. There would have been no problems at the nuclear plants if there was no earthquake and tsunami. No one was killed by any radiation at the Fukushima plants. There were two workers killed by falling equipment caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

Let us review some historical incidents and issues with coal. Coal still provides 50% of the electricity in the US and the world.

Smog related deaths from coal and oil

There are also atmospheric inversions like the London Fog (killed 14,000 in 1952) which continue to happen on a smaller scale. The London Fog killed the equivalent of over one third of the deaths of the 9 month German bombing Blitz of London. The Blitz killed 40,000 over 9 months. The London Fog killed 14,000 over two weeks. The people suffocated.

Photos and descriptions of the killer smog fog are here

By nightfall on Friday 5 December the smothering fog thickened and visibility in most of London dropped to a few metres. During the next day, the sun was too weak and low in the sky to make much of an impression on the fog and that night, and on the Sunday and Monday nights, it again thickened. In most of London, it was almost impossible for pedestrians, totally disorientated through lack of familiar landmarks, to find their way home.

On the Isle of Dogs, almost surrounded by the Thames, visibility was occasionally reported to be nil – the fog was so dense that people could not see their own feet.

Hospitals were soon filled with patients suffering from acute respiratory diseases and, almost un-noticed, deaths in the city began to mount. No one noticed at first until undertakers started to run out of coffins and florists were likewise running out of flowers. The very ill weren’t helped by ambulances, searching in vain for victims and clanging their bells frantically, unable to extricate themselves from the snail-paced traffic jams.

The London smog, compared with a normal fog or even other urban smogs, was especially lethal because it contained high quantities of sulphur oxides (from the cheap sulphurous coal) that reacted with the moisture in the air to produce a dilute, but lung-corrosive, sulphuric acid mist. The killer brew, to some people, triggered massive inflammation of the lungs – in other words thousands of people died almost through suffocation.

There was also the London Killer fog of 1956 that killed over 1000 people. (a separate air pollution incident four years after the 1952 air pollution.

1948, October 30–31, Donora, PA: 20 died, 600 hospitalized, thousands more stricken. Lawsuits were not settled until 1951.
1953, November, New York: Smog kills between 170 and 260 people.
1954, October, Los Angeles: heavy smog shuts down schools and industry for most of the month.
1963, New York: blamed for 200 deaths
1966, New York: blamed for 169 deaths

160 deaths – Smog (London, December 12–15, 1991) (Car exhaust related)

When a latter-day smog enveloped London in 1991 the number of deaths shot up by 10 per cent, according to an unpublished report for the Department of Health. The figures suggest that the smog killed about 160 people. The episode presents the first direct evidence of deaths from air pollution in Britain for more than 30 years and has forced the government to order a review of its air quality guidelines.

The 1991 and other events show that pollution events are not just related to the history of before 1970.

For oil : December 2005, schools and public offices had to close in Tehran, Iran and 1600 people were taken to hospital, in a severe smog blamed largely on unfiltered car exhaust

Aberfan 1966, When Coal Waste killed a school full of Children

Merthyr Vale Colliery was a coal mining facility above the town of Aberfan (Wales, England). For approximately 50 years, millions of cubic metres of debris from the mine had been deposited on the side of Merthyr Mountain. On October 21st, 1966, heavy rains brought a torrential flood of liquefied debris rushing down the mountain and into the town, killing 144 people; 116 of them were children.

Hundreds of miners from local collieries rushed to Aberfan, especially from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery, as well as miners from Deep Navigation Colliery and Taff Merthyr Colliery in the neighbouring Taff Bargoed Valley, and also from pits across the south Wales coalfield, many in open lorries with their shovels in their hands, but by the time those miners reached the site there was little they could do. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11 a.m. that day.

Two doctors were given the job of making death certificates and examining the bodies; the causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. A team of 400 embalmers arrived in Aberfan on Sunday and under police supervision they cleaned and prepared over 100 bodies and placed them in coffins obtained from South Wales, the Midlands, Bristol and even Northern Ireland. The bodies were released to the families from the morning of Monday 24 October. Due to the cramped conditions in the chapel/mortuary, parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. One mother later recalled being shown the bodies of almost every dead girl recovered from the school before identifying her own daughter.

1972 Buffalo Creek in the USA

Buffalo Creek was when a dam of sludge from mountain top removal coal mining broke. There are more than 1,300 surface impoundments (holding areas of coal mining sludge) across the U.S., each of which can reach up to 1,500 acres.

The Buffalo Creek Flood (Feb, 1972): 125 dead, 1121 injured and 4000 homeless.
The 15- to 20-foot black wave of water gushed at an average of 7 feet per second and destroyed one town after another. A resident of Amherstdale commented that before the water reached her town, “There was such a cold stillness. There was no words, no dogs, no nothing. It felt like you could reach out and slice the stillness.” — quote from Everything in Its Path, by Kai T. Erikson

Nothing Special constant deaths

There are more than 1,300 surface impoundments across the U.S., each of which can reach up to 1,500 acres.

40% of freight rail cargo is coal.
There are about 900 rail fatalities per year Coal statistical share of that is 360. The 2 billion tons of coal also sometime travel in large trucks. There were about 5000 large truck fatalities per year in the united states.

There are about 24 mining workers driving fatalities per year and 621 workers per year died from material moving (1.24 billion tons of coal in 2002
Coal share of that is probably about 100-150 workers.

Sulfur Dioxide [acid rain] $52 to 122 billion in property damage

Visability/airline delays $12 billion

About 4 percent of deaths in the United States can be attributed to air pollution, according to the Environmental Science Engineering Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.

310,000 Europeans die from air pollution annually

In the United States, 23,600 deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution from power plants. Those dying prematurely due to exposure to particulate matter lose, on average, 14 years of life. Burning coal also is responsible for some 554,000 asthma attacks, 16,200 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks each year. Atmospheric pollution in the United States racks up an estimated annual health care bill of over $160 billion.

Air pollution health costs

China’s pollution puts a dent in its economy Despite improvements in air quality, the economic impact of air pollution has increased dramatically, new MIT study shows.

Quantifying costs from both lost labor and the increased need for health care, the study finds that this air pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005.