In North Carolina, coal ash slurry ponds were breached by heightened floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew. This is just the latest knock against the already-faltering fuel.

When it rains, it pours. When it pours, it floods—and when it floods, the dirt we’ve swept under the rug runs into our rivers and poisons us.

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Last month at the retired H.F. Lee coal-fired power plant in Goldsboro, N.C., disposal ponds storing over a million tons of coal ash – the toxic waste material left over from burning coal -- were inundated with floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew. Regulators characterize the resulting spill as ‘small’ – a claim contested by conservationists. Either way, it’s just the latest example of coal’s constant assault on public health.  

The coal industry has shown time and again that it will sacrifice safety and pollution prevention in the pursuit of profits.  Toxic pollution is inherent in the normal operation of coal plants.  It’s yet another reason why we should stop burning coal to produce power.  In 2014, an underground pipe explosion at a Duke Energy steam station caused nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash to spill into North Carolina's Dan River. In 2008 the nation’s largest coal ash spill occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn.  The dike holding back a 40-acre disposal pond ruptured, allowing 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry to destroy homes, damage land and contaminate waterways.

Not everyone bears an equal load in shouldering the costs of coal. The toxic leftovers of coal ash disasters, like so many on-the-ground effects of environmental contamination, often fall hardest on low-income and minority communities. In the clean-up of the Kingston spill, by 2010 the TVA had transferred 4 million cubic yards of the ash to a landfill in Perry County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama, where 68 percent of the population is African-American. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chairman Martin Castro recently stated that the EPA “dropped the ball” in terms of protecting low-income and minority communities from toxic coal ash exposure. 

While the EPA did regulate coal ash in 2014, that regulation is too weak to protect health.  Among other things, the EPA declined to classify the substance as hazardous waste, despite the fact that coal ash typically contains more than a dozen toxic heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, that can cause brain damage, cancers and death.

Coal ash spills are just one of the ill effects (pun intended) of this dirty fuel. Mining coal destroys the land, contaminates the water and can cause black lung disease and increased risk of chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for those who mine it.

Burning coal puts toxics in the air that damage the respiratory system, cardiovascular system and nervous systems and contribute to the four major causes of death in the United States.  Coal combustion, along with the other fossil fuels burned for power generation, kills over 50,000 people a year, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Finally, by burning coal, we are accelerating climate change – and climate change threatens human health in many ways:  by increasing the number and intensity of extreme storms, causing potentially lethal heat waves, expanding the range of disease-carrying insects, and more. This worsening of climate change is now colliding with other hazards created by coal: Hurricane Matthew’s rainfall was likely intensified by the warming atmosphere, leading to floods that washed away poorly contained coal waste. 

Renewable energy can replace coal and can do so more and more affordably. New solar or wind power plants can now be built for less than a new coal plant, according to the investment bank Lazard. 

Our reliance on coal harms health, environment, and equality. It’s time to kick the coal habit for good.

Gottlieb is Director of Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.