1769, or the start of the Industrial revolution was when James Watt patented his steam engine. All the steam-powered machines like the steamboat, steamship, and steam locomotives, were all powered by coal. Coal is a solid fossil fuel that when mined, can be used for energy. Today, more then 90% of coal is used for electricity and that which isn’t used for that is used as an industrial power source. Coal fired railroads stopped in the 1950’s and industrial use has declined, but electric utilities have increased their use of coal tenfold in the past 50 years. By the early 20th century, radiator heat was powered by coal and older homes still have their coal chutes.
Wyoming, Colorado and West Virginia are some of our main coal producers and our supply far exceeds that of oil and natural gas. Today, 52% of electricity generated in the United States is coal powered compared to only 14.8% for nuclear power. In 2004, 1.16 billion tons of coal was burned, most for electricity. At the current usage rate of coal, the world has 1500 years left to use this resource.
There are actually many cons of using coal even though Americans are more leery of nuclear power. It was found that people who live near coal-fired plants are exposed to higher radiation then people living by the nuclear plants. (McBride, J.P.) Because of people’s fears about nuclear energy, most plants will be replaced with coal-fired plants unless solar energy is harnessed in a better way. First and foremost, coal produces carbon dioxide, which is suspected to cause global warming. Human health is susceptible because coal is a source of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, two sources that may cause acid rain. Coal also contains uranium and thorium, two radioactive materials. In 1982, each U.S. plant released 5.2 tons of uranium and 12.8 tons of thorium.
Total was 801 tons of uranium and 1971 tons of thorium. It is predicted in the year 2040, that 145,230 tons of uranium and 357,491 tons of thorium will be released in the U.S. alone. These large quantities of these two materials are not being treated as radioactive waste. Coal-powered plants aren’t regulated and are basically permitted to emit low-levels of radiation. Long-term accumulation of these radioactive materials could pose serious health hazards… already the effects are being seen, showing up as more asthma in children. Michigan has the highest prevalence of asthma in children.
Exposure within 30 miles of a coal-powered plant showed 1,929,662 children with 18% of them having asthma. Large amounts of pollution that coal-fired plants built before 1977 are exempt from the Clean Air Act. Illinois alone has 22 plants that are exempt and in 1997 these plants emitted 240,000 tons of Nitrogen Oxide, or as much as the annual pollution from 12 million cars!
Also in 1997, Illinois plants emitted 722,000 tons of Sulfur Dioxide which fine particulate pollution of this has been attributed to 5,570 premature deaths a year in Illinois and 3,767 in the city of Chicago alone, according to a 1996 study by the Environmental Working Group. (http://www.consciouschoice.com/1995-98/cc115/note115.html.)
With so many health problems, potential and active, why are coal plants still being proposed? The Great Lakes basin is home to more than thirty million people. The Great Lakes are the largest system of surface freshwater on the Earth, pning about 800 miles and containing about 20% of the world’s surface freshwater resource. The water in the Great Lakes accounts for more than 90% of the surface freshwater in the U.S
But this beautiful land also has the special focus of our government and that is they want the Great Lakes region to be the future sites of many more coal-powered plants. As many as 94 plants are already in various stages of planning. Ten plants in Illinois, five in Wisconsin, and already Northern Lights Coal Plant in Michigan is causing quite a stir. At first this plant was given a hesitant welcome since it was claiming to be the cleanest coal-powered plant in the U.S. and would create jobs, but looking deeper into it, it was discovered that there were political and environmental regulatory trends and that the Bush administration wanted a nationwide surge in proposals for new coal-fired power stations, with a special focus on the Great Lakes region.
President Bush wants to dismantle federal environmental safeguards and encourage burning more fossil fuels. He has agreed that older coal fired plants in Michigan and other states need to modernize their plants, but will still avoid improving air pollution controls.
With all this, there are some good things about burning coal. Natural gas, which is much more cleaner then coal, has gone up in price. The price has doubled since 1990 and costs four times more to generate then coal so burning coal is more economically feasible for the country. Also, since 1960, particulate precipitators have been used by U.S. coal-fired plants, which reduce 99.5% of the fly ash. Utilities can also collect ash, cinders, and slag and deposit them on coal-plant sites. Coal ash is rich in minerals including large quantities of aluminum and iron, which haven’t been fully looked into. If the government could really regulate coal-fired plants, these would be great advantages of having them.
In conclusion, coal-fired plants are hazardous to human health, animals, and nature especially for those of us living in the Great Lakes region. Instead of the government looking at just the economic advantages of coal, they should also be focusing on what the implications are of producing almost 100 plants in a few states. Canada has already charged that 50% of the pollutants that cause ozone come from the Midwest states so one can only imagine if you actually live in one of these states, what people must be breathing in. The Bush Administration needs to clarify and fix the Clean-Air Act so that not only do older plants need to modernize, but also they need to be regulated. The Great Lakes are a beautiful region to live and vacation and need to be protected against the air toxins that will be released if all these coal-fired plants are built and un-monitored.
McBride, J.P., R.E. Moore, J.P. Witherspoon, R.E. Blanco. “Radiological Impact of
Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants.” Science Magazine. Dec 8, 1978.
Schneider, Keith. “The Bush Administration Pushes Dirty Coal Plants.” E / The
Environmental Magazine. August 20, 2004.
Gabbard, Alex. “Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger.” No
No Author. “History of Energy.” DKospedia, The Free Political Encyclopedia.
December 21, 2004.
No Author. “Self-Reported Asthma Prevalence and Control Among Adults — United
States, 2001.” MMWR Weekly. V.52 May 2, 2003 pg. 381-384.
Lilliston, Ben. “Poison Power.” Conscious Choice. September 1998.