Environmental impacts of coal power: wastes generated
Waste created by a typical coal plant includes more than 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber each year. Nationally, at least 42 percent of coal combustion waste ponds and landfills are unlined.
Toxic substances in the waste—including arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium—can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital human organs and the nervous system.
One study found that one out of every 100 children who drink groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal power plant wastes were at risk of developing cancer. Ecosystems have also been damaged—sometimes severely or permanently—by the disposal of coal plant waste.
Cooling water discharge
In coal power plants with once-through cooling systems, once the 70 to 180 billion gallons of water have cycled through the power plant (for a typical 600-megawatt plant), they are released back into the lake, river, or ocean. This water is hotter (by up to 20-25° F) than the water that receives it, creating "thermal pollution" that can decrease fertility and increase heart rates in fish.
Typically, coal power plants also add chlorine or other toxic chemicals to their cooling water to decrease algae growth. These chemicals are also discharged back into the environment.
Much of the heat produced from burning coal is wasted. A typical coal power plant uses only 33-35 percent of the coal's heat to produce electricity. The majority of the heat is released into the atmosphere or absorbed by the cooling water.
Learn More about Our Coal Use
In-Depth Analysis and Reports
- Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America's Costliest Coal Plants (2012)
- A Risky Proposition: The Financial Hazards of New Investments in Coal Plants (2011)
- Burning Coal, Burning Cash: Ranking the States that Import the Most Coal (2010)
- Coal Power in a Warming World: Investing in Carbon Capture and Storage (2008)