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Coal's 'real' cost could top $500 billion

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Boston (UPI) Feb 18, 2011
The "real" costs of coal to the U.S. public could total more than $500 billion annually, a new study claims.

The report, from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, examines the economic, health and environmental costs associated with coal, including extraction, transportation, processing and combustion.

While the report focuses on the Appalachian region, its conclusions were national in scope. Central Appalachia, which includes parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, produces 33 percent of the country's coal.

Since 1900, more than 100,000 miners have been killed in mining accidents, the report states. Since that time, more than 200,000 have died from black lung disease.

Coal accounts for an estimated $74.6 billion annually in "public health burdens" in Appalachian communities, the report says, with most of that amount resulting from increased healthcare costs, injury and death.

Dr. Paul Epstein, lead author of the study and a public health expert at Harvard Medical School, notes that coal's real costs are likely to be even greater than the study's worst-case estimate of more than $500 billion a year.

While the study didn't analyze probable health impacts related to pollution from coal, "part of the epidemic of cancer can be attributable to some of these carcinogens that we're pouring into the groundwater from extracting fossil fuels," Epstein told The New York Times.

Epstein said he suspects the infiltration of carcinogens into the residential water supply of Appalachian communities could be very high.

"We don't see the benzene and lead and mercury and arsenic -- the whole slew of carcinogenic materials affecting household waters," he said, comparing the hidden pollution dangers of coal mining to visually graphic scenes such as mining accidents and mountaintop removal.

The report shows that about 500 Appalachian summits have been removed.

As for carbon capture and storage, the technique would nearly double the cost of electricity at plants, the authors wrote. Risks of CCS include leaching of heavy metals into ground water and the release of highly concentrated carbon dioxide into the air, the study states, The Boston Globe reports.

"The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use," said Epstein in a news release. "Accounting for these 'hidden costs' doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kilowatt, making wind, solar and other renewable (energies) very economically competitive."

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