Coal is by far the dirtiest and most damaging of our existing energy sources. Burning coal not only causes global warming, it also is the single largest source of mercury pollution in the U.S.. Mercury compounds are toxic, carcinogenic, and are linked to birth defects and damage to lungs and the nervous system. Many waterways are now so polluted with mercury that fish caught there are unsafe for human consumption. Burning coal also generates smog and soot, and causes acid rain which pollutes water and kills fish and plant life. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked to premature deaths, asthma attacks and heart attacks. The serious impact on public health and the environment should be more than enough reason to stop burning coal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was slow to respond to the problem (see this 1999 document addressed to State Governors), and the coal industry has been even slower to comply with laws. Additionally, coal-fired power plants are generally located in poor or rural areas where the local citizens lack representation, and where the plants are out of the sight and mind of the general public.
With new laws to fight global warming pollution anticipated soon, the coal industry is rushing to build as many new plants as possible before those laws are in place. Over 150 plants have been proposed since the year 2000. The estimated lifetime of a coal power plant is about 50 years, and most of the new plants would use the same old dirty technology. If new plants are built now, we will lock ourselves into a lifetime of dirty coal. With the help of pressure from environmentalists and climate activists in 2007, 59 of the proposed plants were either canceled by regulators, put on hold, or abandoned by utilities. Fortunately, clean energy alternatives can provide electricity, and cutting back on coal power will reduce global warming pollution and improve public health. Let's promote the switch to clean energy sources, if only for our health!