Each year, the US sets off the equivalent of 20-30 atomic bombs worth of explosives, effectively obliterating entire features of its own landscape. Why? To get at the coal that's inconveniently located beneath the mountains of Appalachia.
That jaw-dropping figure came towards the end of a session at last month's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called "The True Cost of Coal." Most methods of resource extraction and use come with various forms of what are called externalities, or costs that aren't included in the final product, but distributed across society as a whole in the form of things like environmental degradation and damage to health.
Calculating these hidden costs is obviously a challenge, and the researchers involved doing so tend to produce a range of values to reflect the uncertainty. But for coal, most of the estimates suggests that its true cost is about double the price of the energy produced with it, and may be quite a bit more.
Melissa Ahern of Washington State University described some of the environmental impacts that have resulted from the mountaintop removal process in Appalachia: over 500 peaks gone, 2,000 miles of streams eliminated, and over 140 billion gallons of coal slurry currently held in storage ponds. But her research has focused primarily on the health costs of the mining.
This presents a bit of a challenge, given that the Appalachian communities where the mining takes place are extremely poor, and poverty and low education are associated with a lot of health problems. In addition, many of the problems associated with coal mining—particulates from the mining process and water contamination—don't respect the county borders that divide up the health care data.
But even after adjusting for the variations in things like income and education, counties with active coal mines came out far worst in many measures of health. These include the problems you'd expect from mining, such as cardiopulmonary and respiratory issues, black lung, hypertension, and kidney disease. But they also include things like a 25 percent increase in birth defects in mining counties.
Ahern summed up the fate of people located near mines rather grimly: "Their property value goes down to zero, then they get ill, then they die."