A video response to coal industry greenwash.
The Union of Concerned Scientists offers the following facts about coal plants in the United States. (By way of comparison, the coal-based Nanticoke Generating Plant in Ontario generates 3,964 megawatts — so it is close to eight times larger and dirtier than the plant described below.)
A 500 megawatt coal plant produces 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours per year, enough to power a city of about 140,000 people. It burns 1,430,000 tons of coal, uses 2.2 billion gallons of water and 146,000 tons of limestone.
It also puts out, each year:
- 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings.
- 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a major cause of smog, and also a cause of acid rain.
- 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.
- 500 tons of small particles. Small particulates are a health hazard, causing lung damage. Particulates smaller than 10 microns are not regulated, but may be soon.
- 220 tons of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons; when they don’t burn completely, they are released into the air. They are a cause of smog.
- 720 tons of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and contributor to global warming.
- 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber. A scrubber uses powdered limestone and water to remove pollution from the plant’s exhaust. Instead of going into the air, the pollution goes into a landfill or into products like concrete and drywall. This ash and sludge consists of coal ash, limestone, and many pollutants, such as toxic metals like lead and mercury.
- 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada. In Wisconsin alone, more than 200 lakes and rivers are contaminated with mercury. Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters, since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments. Acid rain also causes mercury poisoning by leaching mercury from rocks and making it available in a form that can be taken up by organisms.
- Trace elements of uranium. All but 16 of the 92 naturally occurring elements have been detected in coal, mostly as trace elements below 0.1 percent (1,000 parts per million, or ppm). A study by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab found that radioactive emissions from coal combustion are greater than those from nuclear power production.
The 2.2 billion gallons of water it uses for cooling is raised 16 degrees F on average before being discharged into a lake or river. By warming the water year-round it changes the habitat of that body of water.
Coal mining creates tons of hazardous and acidic waste which can contaminate ground water. Strip mining also destroys habitat and can affect water tables. Underground mining is a hazard to water quality and to coal miners. In the mid-1970s, the fatality rate for underground miners was 0.4 per million tons of coal — one miner would be killed every two years to supply our 500 MW plant. The disabling injury rate was 38 people per million tons — 106 miners would be disabled every two years to supply this plant. Since coal mining is much more automated now, there are many fewer coal miners, and thus many fewer deaths and injuries.
Transportation of coal is typically by rail and barge; much coal now comes from the coal basins of Wyoming and the West. Injuries from coal transportation (such as at train crossing accidents) are estimated to cause 450 deaths and 6800 injuries per year. Transporting enough coal to supply just this one 500 MW plant requires 14,300 train cars. That’s 40 cars of coal per day.