After a pair of explosions collapsed a coal mine in western Siberia, 66 miners and rescue workers have been declared dead while 24 remain missing and 80 survivors recover in local hospitals. According to a report by the Associated Press, the May 10th blasts have trapped the miners 500 meters (1600 feet) underground and 1.5 kilometers away from the nearest exit.
Russia is familiar with coal mine-related disasters. The deadliest in the nation’s history occurred just a few years ago, when a March 2007 explosion killed 110 in Kemerovo, the same region as where the most recent tragedy occurred, AP local reporter Sergey Ponomarev noted.
Danger seems to follow coal mining across the world, with at least three instances occurring globally in just the past two months. A mine collapse in Kentucky killed two in late April. Weeks earlier, an April 5th explosion in West Virginia killed 29 miners, the highest mine accident related death toll in the U.S. in 40 years, according to the AP. Only nine days before that, a mine in China flooded, leaving 33 miners dead. China has more annual coal mine related deaths than any other country in the world. The China Labor Bulletin reported 3,639 mine accidents and 6,027 deaths in 2004, compared to 28 deaths in the United States.
Accidents are just one danger of coal mining. The use of coal as a source of energy and heat has well documented global environmental repercussions. The Obama administration and organizations like the United Nations and the Environmental Protection Agency view improperly treated, or “dirty,” coal energy to be a growing cause of air and water pollution and a primary source of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
China has been leading the world in terms of coal consumption for more than two decades, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. As of 2006, China was using 2.58 billion short tons of coal per year, a number that has increased every year and expected to continue to rise. The United States is second, using 1.198 billion short tons in 2006.
According to The U.S. Department of Energy, coal-fired electric generating plants are the backbone of the central power system in the United States. Currently, coal processing accounts for about half of all the electricity produced in the United States (http://bit.ly/d50RNr).
Coal is popular because it is cheap. Data from the Energy Information Association claims that as of October 2008, electric utilities paid $2.19 per million Btu of coal, compared to $6.94 and $16.68 per million Btu for natural gas and petroleum, respectively. But the coal industry comes with very distinct problems. According to the United Nations, coal is the leading producer of carbon dioxide, a dangerously harmful greenhouse gas. Another byproduct from coal energy production is sulfur dioxide, a compound that creates acid rain and pollutes both the water and air. China created more than 25 million tons of sulfur dioxide in 2005, according to a World Bank survey on the cost of pollution, the majority of which came from coal energy (http://bit.ly/6zE7LN). The country’s emissions were 28 percent higher than the 2000 figures and missed China’s 2005 emissions target by 42 percent. The sulfur dioxide has affected potable water sources, contaminated and killed wildlife in ponds and rivers, and 75 percent of lakes in China display such significant increases in chemical nutrients that the ecosystem is altered. The World Bank calculated that pollution causes 750,000 premature deaths each year, costing China $25 billion a year in health expenditure and lost labor, along with the lost lives.
“Water and energy are inextricably linked," writes the Department of Energy (http://bit.ly/9gMCwD). "It is critically important to protect U.S. water supplies while providing the energy needed to power the nation into the future," the DOE added.
Aside from sulfur dioxide, coal processing also increases the levels of heavy metals such as mercury in water and food supplies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury air emissions in the United States (http://bit.ly/bMeHLB). Mercury is expelled through flues at power plants and is carried by winds before being deposited on land and in water. Both the EPA and U.S. non-governmental organization The Energy Foundation (http://bit.ly/ds0bpj) have found that high-exposure to mercury can cause serious brain damage and death, and low-level exposure can result in sensory brain damage, especially in children.
The coal miners face the risk of deadly lung disease because of the inhalation of coal dust. Pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, caused more than 9,646 deaths among coal workers in the United States between 1996 and 2005, according to data collected by the Nation Center for Health (http://bit.ly/9m9tlU).
Along with the U.S., China and cities in Northern Asia heavily rely on coal power for economic growth (http://bit.ly/8X9l1Y), as documented by the United Nations’ Development Programme and Division for Sustainable Development. The level of annual carbon dioxide emission in Eastern Asia increased from 3.9 to 6.1 billion metric tons in the five year span between 2000 and 2005, while the level in North America remained static at 0.4 billion metric tons over the same period.
So why are countries and companies still burning coal despite the negative environmental and health-related effects? Can coal energy continue to progress unchecked in these areas, or do new methods of “clean” coal production need to be created and utilized? Or is a move away from coal and into more sustainable and greener energy sources the only solution for the global climate?