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.