THE HIDDEN COSTS OF COAL USE
Coal has been touted as the “cheapest” of fuel options justifying its use in electricity generation and other industries in the Philippines. However, there are hidden costs that make coal consumption costly.
Let’s take the case of coal use for electricity generation. In its 2020 report, Clean Air Asia enumerates the harmful health and environmental impacts from coal-fired power plants. Other costs to society, environment and the economy include lives lost from coal mining disasters, biodiversity loss from deforestation, and soil erosion.
- Environmental costs
Coal-fired power plants emit high levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) which contribute to global warming. Among the other environmental problems linked to pollutants from coal-fired power plants include the formation of acid rain, damage to crops and vegetation, the contamination of air, water, and soil, and loss of ecological biodiversity.
- Health costs
The air pollutants from coal-fired power plants directly influence local air quality and impact the health of exposed populations.
Clean Air Asia’s 2020 report states that “Air pollution accounted for an estimated 6.67 million premature deaths in the world in 2019 and on average reduces life expectancy by 1 year and 8 months. Health impacts due to exposure to air pollution include increased hospitalizations, respiratory infections, heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, strokes, chronic lung disease, and lung cancer, with almost 70% of the burden of air pollution-related mortality borne by Asia (Health Effects Institute, 2020).
Studies show that children exposed to coal-fired power plant emissions face the highest risks, resulting in significant adverse effects on pediatric neurodevelopment, birth weight, and pediatric respiratory morbidity (Amster & Levy, 2019). In 2019, exposure to ambient and household air pollution was responsible for the deaths of about 500,000 infants in the first month after birth (Health Effects Institute, 2020).
In general, communities living nearest to coal-fired power plants, or those with the highest exposures, face as much as five times the risk compared with those residing farther away (Munawer, 2017; EJA, 2017). Depending on the specific pollutants and the dominant meteorological and other atmospheric conditions, hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants can travel from 8 to 48 kilometers from the stack unless they are deposited on the ground, chemically transformed, or removed from the air (EH&E, 2011). In Europe, studies have shown that coal-fired power plant emissions in Poland and Germany have also impacted surrounding countries, causing an estimated 7,000 premature deaths abroad (CAN Europe, et al., 2016).
It was found that for every 1 kilowatt (kW) increase in coal capacity per person in a country, the relative risk for lung cancer increased by a factor of 59% (Lin et al., 2019).”
- Loss of lives from coal mining disasters
Coal mining has resulted in several mining disasters. Notable is the methane gas explosion inside the mining shaft in Malangas in Zamboanga del Sur in 1994 where at least 64 people were killed. Two coal miners died while six others were buried when a coal mine tunnel in Dalaguete, Cebu collapsed due to a methane gas explosion in 2005. In Argao, Cebu, a methane gas explosion in a coal mine killed two miners in 2008. Six coal miners died and three remained missing after being buried by a landslide in Antique in 2015; at the same open pit mine, five miners were killed in 2013 when a wall of the same pit collapsed.
- Deforestation and erosion
Mining operations remove the soil and rock above coal deposits or seams. As part of the process of clearing a coal mine, trees are cut down or burned; plants are uprooted, and the topsoil is scraped away. This results in biodiversity loss and the destruction of the land and soil erosion. The loosened topsoil can be washed down by rain, and the sediments can get into rivers, streams, and waterways.
As huge volumes of topsoil are scraped, and with the muddy character of the surface materials in the affected barangays, eroded materials would be deposited in low areas. Excavations will also cause heavy sedimentation in rivers.
When choosing the country’s energy pathway, policymakers must consider the high price we pay for our continued coal consumption.
Clean Air Asia. 2020. South and Southeast Asian Countries Coal-Fired Power Plant Emission Standards
CNN Philippines. 2015. Article: “IBON: Coal pit accident another point for junking Mining Act”. https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2015/07/19/IBON-Coal-pit-accident-another-argument-for-junking-Mining-Act.html
Philippine Star. 2005. Article: “Tragedy At Dalaguete Coal Mine: Methane blast kills 8 miners”. https://www.philstar.com/cebu-news/2005/12/12/311906/tragedy-dalaguete-coal-mine-methane-blast-kills-8-miners
Philippine Star. 2008. Article: “Methane gas caused Argao mine explosion”. https://www.philstar.com/cebu-news/2008/03/06/48481/methane-gas-caused-argao-mine-explosion
The Associated Press. 1994. Article: “No More Survivors Expected To Be Found After Mine Disaster”. https://apnews.com/article/bcfc6cdeb26dd611a0a988c3ee292ba7