External costs of coal: probably over $500 billion per year in USA

Paul R. Epstein, et al. 2011. Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal in “Ecological Economics Reviews.” Robert Costanza, Karin Limburg & Ida Kubiszewski, Eds. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1219: 73–98.

This paper tabulates a wide range of costs associated with the full life cycle of coal, separating those that are quantifiable and monetizable; those that are quantifiable, but difficult to monetize; and those that are qualitative.

Our comprehensive review finds that the best estimate for the total economically quantifiable costs, based on a conservative weighting of many of the study findings, amount to some $345.3 billion, adding close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated from coal. The low estimate is $175 billion, or over 9¢/kWh, while the true monetizable costs could be as much as the upper bounds of $523.3 billion, adding close to 26.89¢/kWh.

These and the more difficult to quantify externalities are born by the general public.

These figures do not represent the full societal and environmental burden of coal. In quantifying the damages, we have omitted:

  1. impacts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals on ecological systems, plants and animals
  2. many of the long-term impacts on the physical and mental health of those living in coal-field regions and nearby MTR sites
  3. The direct risks and hazards posed by sludge, slurry, and CCW impoundments;
  4. The full contributions of nitrogen deposition to eutrophication of fresh and coastal sea water
  5. The prolonged impacts of acid rain and acid mine drainage;
  6. the full assessment of impacts due to an increasingly unstable climate.

The true ecological and health costs of coal are thus far greater than the numbers suggest.

Below are some excerpts from this 26 page paper of some of the external costs:

With 70% of U.S. rail traffic devoted to transporting coal, there are strains on the railroad cars and lines, and (lost) opportunity costs, given the great need for public transport throughout the nation. There are direct hazards from transport of coal. People inmining communities report that road hazards and dust levels are intense. In many cases dust is so thick that it coats the skin, and the walls and furniture in homes. This dust presents an additional burden in terms of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Coal mining and combustion releases many more chemicals than those responsible for climate forcing.

Coal also contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium, and other toxic, and carcinogenic substances. Coal crushing, processing, and washing releases tons of particulate matter and chemicals on an annual basis and contaminates water, harming community public health and ecological systems. Coal combustion also results in emissions of NOx, sulfur dioxide (SO2), the particulates PM10 and PM2.5, and mercury; all of which negatively affect air quality and public health.

Chemicals in the waste stream include ammonia, sulfur, sulfate, nitrates, nitric acid, tars, oils, fluorides, chlorides, and other acids and metals, including sodium, iron, cyanide, plus additional unlisted chemicals.

Emissions and seepage of toxins and heavy metals into fresh and marine water were significant. Elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water have been found in coal mining areas, along with ground water contamination consistent with coal mining activity in areas near coal mining facilities.

In 2005, coal was responsible for 82% of the U.S.’s GHG emissions from power generation.

In one study of drinking water in 4 counties in West Virginia, heavy metal concentrations (thallium, selenium, cadmium, beryllium, barium, antimony, lead, and arsenic) exceeded drinking water standards in 25% of homes.

Of the emissions of carcinogens in the life cycle inventory (inventory of all environmental flows) for coal-derived power, 94% were emitted to water, 6% to air, and 0.03% were to soil, mainly consisting of arsenic and cadmium.

Ecological impacts

Appalachia is a biologically and geologically rich region, known for its variety and striking beauty. There is loss and degradation of habitat from MTR; impacts on plants and wildlife (species losses and species impacted) from land and water contamination, and acid rain deposition and altered stream conductivity; and the contributions of deforestation and soil disruption to climate change. Globally, the rich biodiversity of Appalachian head water streams is second only to the tropics. For example, the southern Appalachian mountains harbor the greatest diversity of salamanders globally, with 18% of the known species world-wide

Acid precipitation

In addition to the health impacts of SO2, sulfates contribute to acid rain, decreased visibility, and have a greenhouse cooling influence.  The long-term Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study104 has demonstrated that acid rain (from sulfates and nitrates) has taken a toll on stream and lake life, and soils and forests in the United States, primarily in the Northeast. The leaching of calcium from soils is widespread and, unfortunately, the recovery time is much longer than the time it takes for calcium to become depleted under acidic conditions.


Coal combustion in the U.S. releases approximately 48 tons of the neurotoxin mercury each year. The most toxic form of mercury is methylmercury, and the primary route of human exposure is through consumption of fin and shellfish containing bioaccumulated methylmercury. Methylmercury exposure, both dietary and in utero through maternal consumption, is associated with neurological effects in infants and children, including delayed achievement of developmental milestones and poor results on neurobehavioral tests—attention, fine motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities, and memory. Seafood consumption has caused 7% of women of childbearing age to exceed the mercury reference dose set by the EPA, and 45 states have issued fish consumption advisories.

Direct costs of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants causing mental retardation and lost productivity in the form of IQ detriments were estimated by Trasande et al. to be $361.2 million and $1.625 billion, respectively, or 0.02¢/kWh and 0.1¢/kWh, respectively. Low-end estimates for these values are $43.7 million and $125 million, or 0.003¢/kWh and 0.007¢/kWh; high-end estimates for these values are $3.3 billion and $8.1 billion, or 0.19¢/kWh and 0.48¢/kWh.

There are also epidemiological studies suggesting an association between methylmercury exposure and cardiovascular disease.



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