Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful when ingested by pregnant women, children, and the elderly.8 Mercury exposure has been linked to higher risks for autism, impaired cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.9 In addition to mercury, US coal plants release about 176,000 pounds of lead, 161,000 pounds of chromium, and 100,000 pounds of arsenic per year – all of which are extremely damaging to humans if they are ingested.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that coal-fired power plants account “for over 40 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions.” It’s the global nature of neurotoxins that make them so worrisome and so difficult to control. Scientists have estimated that about 30 percent of the mercury that settles onto the ground in the US comes from other countries. And of those other countries, China is the most problematic. Every year, China spews some 600 tons of mercury into the air – and the majority of that volume comes from the country’s 2,000 coal-fired power plants.10 Scientists in Oregon have estimated that about 20 percent of the mercury that enters the Willamette River comes from overseas, and some of that, no doubt, is from China.11
US regulators are imposing rules that will drastically reduce the amount of mercury that can be released from coal-fueled plants. The EPA’s Clean Air Mercury Rule, issued by the agency in 2005, aims to reduce the amount of mercury emissions from coal-fueled power plants by about 70 percent.12 The agency plans to issue a final rule on the program by the end of 2011.13
The coal industry also faces the possibility of significant new regulations on its solid waste. In the US, coal-fueled power plants produce some 130 million tons of solid waste annually. That volume of material, which includes ash and scrubber byproduct, is about three times as much as all of the municipal garbage produced every year in the US.14 Increased regulation of coal ash holding ponds is likely thanks to the massive coal ash spill that occurred in Tennessee in 2008, a spill that flooded some 300 acres of land with waste contaminated with a variety of heavy metals.15 In May, the EPA unveiled draft regulations that could require that coal ash be treated as special waste under federal hazardous-waste laws. Another proposal put forward by the agency could require that coal ash be treated in much the same way as household garbage.16
The increasingly stringent environmental rules on emissions and ash will pose big challenges for the coal industry in the years ahead. And while some operators will be able to handle the costs of upgrading their equipment to meet the new mercury rules and the ash-handling rules, some will not. The result will be increased market share for natural gas and nuclear power.
The punch line here is obvious: coal is facing more regulatory uncertainty than ever before. But coal’s advantages on both cost and scale assure that any phase out of coal will be a decades-long, or even century-long process.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He recently published his fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.
- BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009. In 2008, US coal consumption equaled 565 million tons of oil equivalent. The total primary energy use for Central and South American countries was 579.6 mtoe.
- EIA data. Available: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1_a.html.
- Goodell, Big Coal, 134.
- Environmental News Service, “Mercury Found in Blood of One-Third of American Women,” September 1, 2009. Available: http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/sep2009/2009-09-01-092.asp
- Matt Pottinger, Steve Stecklow, and John J. Fialka, “Invisible Export – A Hidden Cost of China’s Growth: Mercury Migration,” Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2004. Available: http://www.aug.edu/~sbajmb/Clippings/2004-12-17-ChinaMercury.pdf
- The Oregonian, “China’s mercury flushes into Oregon’s rivers,” November 24, 2006. Available: http://research.uwb.edu/jaffegroup/publications/116400a.pdf
- EPA data, http://www.epa.gov/mercuryrule/basic.htm
- EPA data, http://www.epa.gov/mercuryrule/
- Goodell, Big Coal, 123.
- Shaila Dewan, “At Plant in Coal Ash Spill, Toxic Deposits by the Ton,” New York Times, December 29, 2008. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/us/30sludge.html?_r=1&em
- Spencer Hunt, “Proposals may close coal-ash ponds,” Columbus Dispatch, May 17, 2010, http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2010/05/17/proposals-may-close-ash-ponds.html