Coal is a fossil fuel that's burned to generate electricity and heat, or liquefied to produce gas and diesel fuel. Coal begins as plant matter that's trapped underground for centuries, and over time becomes petrified due to lack of exposure to air. What results is a useful but highly controversial rock that, while valuable to human energy production, is nevertheless difficult, expensive and dangerous to obtain -- with high costs to the environment and human health. There is much debate whether the environmental effects of coal mining justify its continued use.

Coal

Coal is either extracted from deep inside the earth or removed from its surface. The former is known as underground mining, the latter as strip mining or mountaintop removal. Either process contributes a high level of damage to the environment:

#12 Noise pollution

One of the most obvious (albeit perhaps least harmful) environmental effects of coal mining is noise pollution. Coal mining is a loud, day- and night-long process that disrupts the lives of those in the surrounding communities, reduces the quality of life and can go on for decades.

#11 Loss Of Wildlife

Coal mining requires a large expanse of territory. When a mining operation moves in, it invades and destroys sizable ranges of wilderness area, displacing the native fauna and removing habitat and food sources. This eventually results in an imbalanced ecosystem -- and even the endangerment or extinction of entire species.

#10 Sink Holes

Another environmental effect of coal mining is "mine subsidence" -- the earth sinking as a result of a disturbance to its foundation. This occurs when the coal deep below our planet's surface is removed from its bed.

#9 Topographical Alteration

Coal mining irreparably damages plant life and soil, creating barren patches of land that are not only aesthetically unpleasing but contribute to loss of valuable topsoil, erosion and dust storms.

#8 Flooding

Coal mining and preparation generates millions of gallons of highly toxic, semi-solid waste called "slurry." To contain the slurry, dams are often built in between the mountains from where the coal is being mined. There are several documented instances in which slurry dams have failed, resulting in deadly floods and ensuing environmental disaster.

#7 Water Pollution

Highly acidic runoff from coal stocks and handling facilities, known as acid mine drainage (AMD), infiltrates waterways, contaminating local water supply and affecting the PH balance in the surrounding lakes and streams.

#6 Air Pollution

Coal dust, in addition to being dirty and unpleasant smelling, is dangerous if inhaled over an extensive period of time. People with prolonged exposure to coal dust are at high risk of contracting "Black lung disease," which left untreated can lead to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and heart failure.

#5 Fires

Since coal is combustible, the threat of fire is another example of the environmental effects of coal mining. If a fire occurs in a coal bed, it can last for years or even decades, potentially spreading and releasing noxious fumes into the surrounding community.

#4 Toxicity

Coal and coal waste contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, which are highly toxic both to plant and animal life.

#3 Acid Rain

Possibly one of the scariest environmental effects of coal mining is the threat of acid rain. The high acidity of AMD remains in the water supply even through evaporation and condensation, which enables it to stay in the atmosphere and eventually return in the form of "acid rain," thus perpetuating the cycle of pollution.

#2 Radiation

Coal contains trace elements of radium and uranium, which, when released into the environment, can lead to radioactive contamination. While it's true that these elements occur in small amounts, enough coal is routinely burned at coal processing plants to produce dangerous levels of radioactive waste.

#1 Climate Change

High levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is released during the mining process, contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer. Carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, is released in the combustion (burning) process, when coal is used to fuel electric generators and steam engines. As a result, global warming is probably one of the most significant and widely-felt environmental effects of coal mining.

References

Alex Gabbard, "Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (2008-02-05)

PubMed Health, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine

Environmental Impact of Coal Mining On Water Regime and Its Management, R.K. Tiwary, Central Mining Research Institute 21 October 2000

Coal Mining and the Environment, World Coal Association