The true costs of coal

Coal’s decline and its polluting legacy 

As the economics of coal continue to decline and the urgency of climate change intensifies, electric utilities are forced to reckon with the reality of moving away from the South’s fossil fuel-dependent past. Communities are experiencing the health benefits of long-overdue air and water pollution safeguards as we transition to cleaner sources of energy. 

Faced with pressure from the federal government and environmental activists to retire old and inefficient coal-burning units that would cost hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars to upgrade them, some utilities have moved toward cleaner, more affordable energy resources. As a result, coal’s footprint in the South has been more than halved over the last decade, with 171 coal-fired units shuttered or scheduled to be shut down. 

But our region’s historic reliance on coal has exposed the devastating and long-lasting impacts of the lifecycle of coal—from its initial extraction to the waste left behind after it is burned—to the detriment of our air, water, land, and communities. 

Even as we move toward cleaner, more affordable energy sources, communities are living with the legacy of coal’s toxic air and water pollution throughout our region. We will keep working to strengthen and enforce critical safeguards for the health of communities, our air, and our water and make sure that utilities to clean up their act. 

Gudrun Thompson, senior attorney and interim leader of SELC’s Clean Energy and Air Program

The lifecycle of coal: true costs

Much of the coal burned in plants in the South has been obtained through mountaintop removal coal mining, a devastating practice that has destroyed countless mountains, forests, and streams.  

Past and current mining operations have taken a toll on our region’s water quality: from filling miles of streams, tributaries and wetlands under lax state and federal permits, to abandoned mining sites that continue to degrade streams and contaminate groundwater with unpermitted discharges containing high levels of sediment, heavy metals like iron and aluminum, and other pollutants.  

Burning coal in power plants produces staggering amounts of air and water pollution harmful to human health—often disproportionately impacting nearby communities of color—and has led our region to become one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change.   

Coal burning also generates vast quantities of coal ash waste that contains dangerous heavy metals like arsenic—toxic pollution that is often stored in unlined pits on or near the plant sites. Many of these sites leak—some silently seep into our rivers and groundwater; some fail catastrophically, like the Kingston spill of 2008 in Tennessee and Dan River in 2014 in North Carolina—putting communities, our waterways and wildlife at risk. 

The South’s shift to a cleaner, healthier future 

We are focused on advancing our region toward a cleaner, smarter, zero- carbon energy future by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels like coal, while also working to address the ongoing impacts of coal’s legacy and to hold utilities and other polluters accountable.  

We have been a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies, such as energy efficiency, solar, and wind. As a result, carbon emissions from power generation in our region declined 50 percent since 2005.  

We continue to challenge rollbacks to air and water pollution regulations at the state and federal levels, strengthening environmental safeguards and their enforcement. At the federal level, we will work to support and implement EPA’s proposal for coal plants to cut up to 617 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide through 2042. And we remain committed to advocating for responsible, effective coal ash clean ups. As a result of SELC’s coal ash enforcement efforts, Southern utilities are now required or have committed to remove over 270 million tons of coal ash—including 70 percent of leaking, unlined pits covered under federal protections—to dry, lined storage away from our rivers, lakes and streams. These outcomes have not been achieved in any other region.