The standard argument for America's continued heavy use of coal to generate electricity is that it's cheap and abundant. Yes, it contributes to air pollution and adds to the atmosphere's burden of greenhouse gases. But at least its wastes aren't highly radioactive for centuries.
Now, however, there's a more thorough accounting of coal's costs as an energy source. What's really abundant is the evidence that coal isn't as cheap as it appears.
The National Research Council, a federal agency, looked into the so-called hidden costs when energy from different sources is produced and used. The majority of those costs involved harm to human health. Air pollution emerged as the most significant cause of health damage. The costs were regarded as hidden because they were not reflected in the fuels' market prices.
Of $120 billion in annual costs of this sort, the council said, half were attributable to coal. The calculations were for 2005, the last year for which complete data were available. Certainly in North Carolina, where debate over our heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants has been intense, it's sobering to see such numbers attached to the environmental and health effects of coal burning.
Coal can be a nasty thing to mine, with workers put at risk and grave environmental damage done when, for example, mountaintops are blasted away to expose coal seams. But it is the air pollution typically released when coal is used to generate electricity that takes an especially heavy toll, by the research council's reckoning.
To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.