The Cost of Coal

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Hotline, Spring 2001

The California energy crisis has focused attention on the need for cheap, reliable electricity, so coal is suddenly popular again. Least expensive of all the fossil fuels, coal is in abundant supply especially in this part of the U.S. Sixty percent of Pennsylvania’s electricity is generated from coal. In western Pennsylvania it’s closer to 90%. When you shop for the lowest electric price, the lowest price is often coal.

But the real cost of coal-fired electricity in western Pennsylvania is not expressed in dollars. The price paid to the utility is low because we simply don’t pay for many aspects of coal mining and burning in cash. Instead, we pay for them in land and water damage and air pollution.

In the years since Pennsylvania’s coal production hit its peak in 1918, environmental regulations have improved, but yesterday’s legacy and today’s new impacts are evident throughout our area. When I hike and travel in western Pennsylvania I see the hidden costs of coal:

  • Road subsidence on Interstate 70 and ponding at Enlow Fork Creek in Greene County due to longwall mining.
  • Coal mine tailing piles at Bavington, Washington County and Indian Head, Fayette County.
  • Old unreclaimed strip mines near Imperial, Allegheny County and new strip mines in progress in Somerset County south of Route 30.
  • Acid mine drainage (orange water) in Indian Creek, Fayette County; Blacklick Creek, Indiana County; and the small streams feeding Chartiers Creek, Allegheny County.
  • Grit and smoke from old coal-fired power plants (which were “grandfathered” by Clean Air legislation and need not meet the new standards) at Homer City in Indiana County and Hatfield’s Ferry in Greene County.

It dawned on me a few months ago that every lightbulb I leave burning has a direct path back to coal and has left a trail of damage in its wake.

In the nationwide quest for reliable electricity, coal will still play its part but there are things we can do to reduce the toll it takes. We can work to conserve energy, promote and use cleaner energy sources, press for laws to clean up the “grandfathered” coal power plants, work for better mining practices and reclamation, and encourage more than cosmetic clean-up of the damage that’s left behind. Some day the real cost of mining and burning coal may show up in our electric bills. But until then our actions will have to counter the buried cost of coal.

by Kate St. John, GASP Board Member