The Chemical Composition of Coal and Its Negative Impact

My friend and I are unable to find the exact chemical composition of coal in either books or the Internet and were wondering if you could please help us? Also if you know any information that would help us out regarding fossil fuels and their negative effects, it would be greatly appreciated. — Amelia R., Queensland, Australia

Amelia, you ask a good question, because while many people are preoccupied with the carbon output of coal use, coal’s composition causes lots of other bad consequences that tend to be hidden from public view. An Australian website that lays out the basics states it this way:

“Coal is a combustible carbonaceous rock, formed from accumulated vegetable matter that has been altered by decay and various amounts of heat and pressure over millions of years. Inter-layered with other sedimentary rocks,…Coal varies widely in its composition. It is composed chiefly of rings of six carbon atoms joined together in an extremely complex composition of layered arrangements that have in them, not only hydrogen but significant amounts of oxygen and nitrogen. The structure also includes varying amounts of sulphur and other environmental pollutants. Up to one tenth of the total mass of coal can be material with no fuel value…Coal is usually analysed for moisture, volatile matter, fixed carbon and ash. The sulphur and nitrogen content are important as emissions of their chemical oxides during coal burning can cause acid rain. Uncontrolled emissions resulted in widespread damage to forests and lakes in Europe, the USA and Canada.”

Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining that already covers 800 square miles just in just the eastern USA. A direct consequence of this type of mining is that there have been 6,000 “valley fills” of debris from mountain tops in West Virginia and Kentucky. Since 1980, according to the National Mining Association, only 5% of the destroyed land has been returned to some kind of “economic development” such as wildlife habitat.

“Sludge impoundment” is the way that some coal companies deal with the waste that is generated from washing coal. The solid waste (rocks and soil) is used to damn the liquid waste in former valleys. These impoundments have been known to become a source of toxic leaks. Further, dam failure is an historic fact. Another way to deal with sludge is to put it into old underground coal mines, however, this contaminates ground water for drinking. Other issues that pose risks involving coal are processing — very poisonous — and transport.

According to the environmental groups in my state of Virginia, “The largest source of mercury pollution in Virginia is coal-fired power plants. In fact, according to the EPA, 19 Virginia power plants were responsible for 69 percent of in-state mercury emissions, far above the national average. The big utilities’ coal fired power plants are the largest single source of toxic mercury in Virginia. Already, 1 in 4 women tested in Virginia had high enough levels of mercury to put a child at risk for neurological development problems.

According to an East Coast utility quoted in a Washington Post article, “Between 1999 and 2005, Pepco officials point out, the price of coal climbed 150 percent, oil prices rose 300 percent and natural gas costs jumped 400 percent.”

I always point out that even before climate change entered our global awareness, we knew that burning coal emits carcinogens, mercury and regulated emissions under the Clean Air Act (NOx, SO2, and particulates) in addition to carbon. Processing coal requires lots of energy and water and the impact to the land is devastating. While mining deaths are always evident, U.S. taxpayers still underwrite part of the costs of brown and black lung disease. I personally have met miners and seen the immediate impacts of mountaintop removal in terms of devastating streams and rivers, farmland, and homes and communities. When I hear clean coal advocates, even among the environmental community, I remind them they are only focusing on carbon, not the myriad of these other adverse impacts.

In my talks, I pass out coal, this combustible carbonaceous composite of rock we mine and burn and dump the waste produced by doing that. The more we expose ourselves and our kids to its make up and understand how its use and conversion negatively impact human health, the environment and our global climate, the quicker we realize that we should rush to ease ourselves off of this resource as fast as humanly possible.

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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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