Why Mining, Moving and Burning Billions of Tons is Dangerous

The world consumed 8.6 billion tons of coal per year as of the year 2016. The current usage is about 9 billion tons of coal per year.

China mines and uses nearly half of the world’s coal each year. Unofficial estimates often estimate China’s coal mining death tolls at twice the official number reported by the government. Since 1949 over 250,000 coal mining deaths have been recorded. However, since 2002, the death toll is gradually declining while the coal production is rapidly rising, doubling over this same period.

The USA is now only using about 5% of the world’s coal. To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area of the Central Appalachians the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined every 81 days. That’s about 68 square miles — or roughly an area equal to 10 city blocks mined every hour. A one-year supply of coal converts about 310 square miles of the region’s mountains into surface mines.

The US used to have over 1000-3200 coal mining deaths each year. This was before 1947. US coal mining deaths were about 100-1000 each year from 1948-1984. US coal mining deaths were 20-89 per year from 1985 to 2013.

The big drop in coal mining deaths in the US was when the US went from underground mining to mountain top removal coal mining.

1500 tons of explosive is used every day in Central Appalachians alone to remove up to 800 feet of mountain to get to buried coal.

Forests are clear cut or blown up. Thousands of miles of streams are permanently buried.

This is the start of the process to get the coal. The coal is washed on site which pollutes billions of gallons of water.

The dirty water, blown up trees, and dirt become a pond or lake of slurry held behind makeshift dams. These are called tailing dams. There are over ten thousand tailing dams in the world today. Many from coal mining but a lot from iron and goal and other mining. Brazil is mostly iron ore mining.

1972 Buffalo Creek disaster was a tailings dam failure. The Buffalo Creek flood was a disaster that occurred on February 26, 1972, when a coal slurry impoundment dam managed by the Pittston Coal Company and located on a hillside in Logan County, West Virginia, burst, four days after having been declared “satisfactory” by a federal mine inspector. The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132 million US gallons (500,000 cubic meters) of black wastewater, cresting over 30 feet (9.1 m) high, upon the residents of sixteen coal towns along Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. 507 houses were destroyed, in addition to 44 mobile homes and 30 businesses. The Buffalo Creek disaster involved 0.01% of the World’s coal tailings. There are thousands of tailing dams like Buffalo Creek around the world.

The 1966 Aberfan disaster was a coal waste disaster.

Next, we move the coal to the plants. This happens by train, truck, ship and barge. 40% of US rail cargo is coal. A one gigawatt coal plant would receive 100-200 train cars full of coal every day. A large percentage of train and truck cargo is moving coal. This same proportion of flobal trucking and train accidents are deaths and injuries related to coal and other mining. Hundreds of deaths from truck and rail accidents every year are from moving coal.

The coal burned in plants cause air and water pollution. Coal is burnable dirt, which is why it is so cheap. The particulates that ash that get into the air is mostly not captured and goes into your lungs or into the ecosystem that gives you food and water. “Normal” air pollution kills (shortens the lives) 7 million people each year. Coals part of this is 1-2 million people each year. Hospitalization due to air pollution is about 10-20% of all medical service.

Nuclear Energy’s largest contribution was to reduce global coal usage by 20%. This reduced pollution and saved thousands of lives every year.

A large part of the coal that is burned is captured as ash. This is called fly ash. A one gigawatt coal plant produces about 1000 tons of fly ash every day. The weight of the coal coming in generates a similar amount of fly ash.

In 2008, there was a Tennessee fly ash spill. This spill did not kill anyone but caused $1 billion in damage and polluted a river.

The spill covered surrounding land with up to six feet (1.8 m) of sludge. It was the largest industrial spill in United States history, more than three times the size of the Martin County sludge spill of 2000, which spilled 306 million US gallons (1,160,000 m3) of liquid coal waste. The 1.1 billion US gallons (4,200,000 m3) of sludge were enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-size swimming pools and the volume released was about 100 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and about 10 times greater than the volume released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the largest oil spill in history.

Following the Kingston Fossil Plant spill, the EPA began developing regulations that would apply to all ash ponds in the US.

The EPA published a Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) regulation in 2015. The agency continued to classify coal ash as non-hazardous, thereby avoiding strict permitting requirements under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), but with new restrictions:

Existing ash ponds that are contaminating groundwater must stop receiving CCR, and close or retrofit with a liner.
Existing ash ponds and landfills must comply with structural and location restrictions, where applicable, or close.
A pond no longer receiving CCR is still subject to all regulations unless it is dewatered and covered by 2018.
New ponds and landfills must include a geomembrane liner over a layer of compacted soil.

Some use of technology can minimize the chance of the worst losses of life from the tailing dam failures. Satellite and Lidar imaging will monitor shifts and movements at the tailing dams. This could let timely evacuations to occur. The houses and buildings will still be destroyed but people can moved out of the way.

18 thoughts on “Why Mining, Moving and Burning Billions of Tons is Dangerous”

  1. Over 90 percent of the tonnage in the Eastern US is from deep mines, not surface mined. That kind of flaws your premises.

  2. Dissolving minerals into super hot water isn't confusing as soon as someone mentioned it, I just didn't think of it myself until the subject was brought up.
    I remember working in an open cut pit where the ground water was a pH of about 2. Any aluminium in particular would disappear if you left it in a puddle for a week.

    The suggested operation of a geothermal plant is that you'd be extending your drilling out to frac new volumes of rock while you are extracting the heat from the first section. Modern slant and horizontal drilling tech can start at a given point and end up accessing a (approximate) hemisphere of rock a couple of km in radius (so I'm getting from what I read, I wouldn't know myself)

  3. It's hardly shocking if you reflect on how hydrothermal ores are generated in the first place. Or ever looked at a hot spring. Frankly, I grew up on well water, and it tasted like you were drinking rocks. We'd have to pull up the jet yearly to chip hematite deposits off it. As soon as oxygen hit that water it was depositing iron ore on everything it touched, keeping the plumbing fixtures looking decent was a full time job.

    And that was water equilibrating with the rock at about 45-50 degrees, painfully cold even in the summer. In rock at a high enough temperature for power generation the amount of dissolved material would go way up.

    Also, outside of volcanic areas, geothermal heat isn't as renewable as it is advertised; The thermal conductivity of rock is lousy, you'll run the plant at a decent rate for a few years, then find your temperatures dropping off. Sustainable power density for geothermal is very low, long term.

  4. About the comically large amount of solar cells and wind power towers..

    A solar cell is rated for roughly 200 W per m2. On average, each W of installed solar power results in 1620 Wh per year in California, which then equates to about 300 kWh per m2.

    Total electricity production in the USA was ~4200 TWh in 2018, which would equate to 14000 square kilometers of solar cells in California. If we multiply this by 5 to get the overcapacity of 5x, it would be 70000 km2 or equivalently 27000 square miles. That's about 16% of the area of California for all of the energy needs of the USA.

    Of course no one in their right mind would have all of the energy production of the USA in California, but it show the rough scale of things. And I don't think that 16% of the area of California or 0.27% of the area of USA is unreasonable for the complete energy production system.

    That is, if the price is right….

    Also note that you can combine solar installation with agriculture. Dual use [1]. In the USA, there is about 1.4 million square miles of field, so you would only need to convert a fraction to dual use. Let's say you would need twice as much "dual use" farmland as solar cell area, that would necessitate a conversion of 54000 square miles, or about 4% of the crop fields in the USA. Not unreasonable, IMHO.


  5. So where did he get it wrong? Is the cost decline incorrect? The applicability of Wrights law? Or the idea of compensating intermittency with a combination of batteries and overproduction of energy?

  6. Maybe. There are still more than a billion people with no electricity and a bunch more with garbage electricity.

    Many more coal plants will be built worldwide before a mining decline. The global coal mining decline might not be for another century.

    It is declining in the US because of regulations and cheap natural gas. Many other countries have neither of these.

  7. If you take a basic look at the resource size and extraction concepts of hot dry rock geothermal then it looks like an absolute winner. Vast resources that can last for millenia, solid baseload power 24/7, zero pollution. Works in many parts of the world including currently high population industrialised areas. All it needs is suitable holes.

    In practice, as is usually the case, there are a bunch of technical issues that make life difficult.

    One that was unexpected (to me at least) is that these hot dry rocks dissolve all sorts of nasty chemicals into the water which then comes up into your power plant. The "pure, natural water from the earth" turns out to be acidic poison.

    But, as I said above, this is usually the case with any new tech. So the problems could be solved. Can they be solved economically, and soon enough for us? Well that I can't say.

    And more to the point, you can't say just by reading the press releases put out by people trying to raise money for such projects. OF COURSE they say that it's all tickety-boo and just about ready, just need a few little tweaks, for which we need just a couple of (hundred) million dollars, just sign here…

    But that applies to any new tech. Sometimes they are telling the truth. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they might even know which is which.

  8. aha – seems like One falling under the gross Presumption that people are fundamentally Good. Nope. Regulate them or they should otherwise plunder the Earth.

  9. a world in which changes happen primarily when something obviously better comes along… its worked for generations… choice

  10. yep. supply, demand, risk, employment… all in place to facilitate a long and slow decline.

  11. It is worth thinking about why this mining still occurs.

    Economies need energy. Coal power plants are relatively cheap and easy to build when you leave off the emissions controls.

    Compared to indoor fires for cooking, heating, and light, coal is a safety miracle. Compared to sun, wind, and batteries, coal is available today at reasonable cost.

  12. He ain't right. Meanwhile renewables create 1-2% of the world's electricity, and to get to anything useful, would take up comically absurd amounts of space. If you want green, you either go with nuclear power or spaceborne solar; these are the only technologies that can scale.

  13. Democrats held Congress in 1974 and created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They all but disbanded the Atomic Energy Commission, which was viewed as too connected with public nuclear energy ventures. The Carter administration next made the push to further hamstring the electrical power industry by prohibiting nuclear fuel recycling, pushing the electrical grid toward reliance upon coal, and away from liquid petroleum fuel use. The French went down the better route.

  14. Topping these mountains (and what it does to the valleys and streams) is an abomination. The executions of industry officials responsible for doing this (and gov't officials for allowing it), after they've had a fair trial, of course, should easily outnumber the deaths of miners prior to 2013.

    Remediation is virtually impossible and, in any case, mining companies have a peculiar tendency to transfer all their money away, and then declare bankruptcy, when it comes time to clean up their messes.

  15. Mining, Moving and Burning doesn't have to be dangerous, but it's usually cheaper to do nothing than to do something. If there are no job killing regulations to stop you, why do anything that costs more money? After all, other people's lives are cheap, just another cost of doing business.

  16. I guess we all agree that coal mining and coal power is a pretty dirty business. But this will be soon be gone if Tony Seba is right about the cost reduction of solar, wind and batteries.

    So my question is, will coal become vastly more expensive as coal mines close? I'm thinking about graphite and graphene production. Will this make the end price of those great products higher? There is a lot of really great potential in these products as fillers and strengthening of structural materials in houses, bridges and roads..

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