The Effect of Coal Usage on Human Health and the Environment

Coal has played a significant role in the advancement of civilization and will continue to be a major fuel source for at least the next quarter century, as discussed in Chapter 2 (Past, Present, and Future Role of Coal). The value of coal is partially offset by the environmental issues it raises. Some of these environmental issues also have impacts on human health.

Coal mining has a direct impact on the environment, as it disturbs large areas of land and has the potential to affect surface water and groundwater in the case of surface mining. In some surface mines, the generation of acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major problem. Other significant impacts include fugitive dust emissions and disposal of overburden and waste rock.

In underground mining, the surface disturbance is less obvious but the effect of subsidence can be large. The generation and release of methane and other gases can be a problem. As with surface mining, groundwater can also be disturbed and AMD can become an issue. In addition, underground miners have a history of respiratory ailments and, until the last few decades, have experienced high injury and death rates from accidents.

Coal beneficiation is primarily based on wet physical processes that produce waste streams that must be dealt with. These include fine materials that are discharged as a slurry to a tailings impoundment and a coarse material that is hauled away as a solid waste. Storage, handling, and transportation of coal produce fugitive dust.

Coal utilization, specifically combustion, which is the focus of this chapter, produces several types of emissions that adversely affect the environment, particularly ground-level air quality. In addition, the generation of coal combustion by-products must be addressed, whether they are disposed of or reused/recycled.

Concern for the environment has in the past and will in the future contribute to policies that affect the consumption of coal. The main emissions from coal combustion are sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NO x), particulate matter (PM), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Recent studies on the health effects of mercury have raised concerns about mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. The environmental and health effects of these pollutants, along with other pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), lead, and organic emissions, are discussed in this chapter, as is the effect of coal utilization on human health and the environment. The impacts of mining, storage, handling, transportation, beneficiation, combustion by-products, and emissions from coal-fired power plants are presented with a focus on activities in the United States.

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