Coal, a fossil fuel, has been a source of energy for humanity, but it has always been a source of danger to those who mined it. Coal miners are constantly at risk of cave-ins and of the effects of inhaling coal dust. Now, of course, we realise that burning coal is also extremely hazardous to the health of the entire planet.
Using coal to generate electricity causes emissions that are a major contributor to global warming. Power plant emissions can damage crops, forests, soils, and water and also present other, immediate, health hazards to people, such as chronic respiratory disease and cancer.
I grew up in the area surrounding one of Australia’s largest brown coal deposits, the LaTrobe Valley in Victoria. The mine and power plant originally provided lots of employment for the area and I, like many people in the surrounding towns, worked at the power station. At that time, the mines and power station were owned and controlled by the state Government. Maintenance of the power plants and distribution networks was routinely undertaken and safeguards, such as training firefighters, were part of the investment.
Unfortunately, the Victorian state government decided in the mid-1990s to sell this major asset, and once the prime motive for its existence was to provide profits to its owners, cost-cutting measures were introduced. Unemployment in the Valley was rife and property values plummeted. The area has never fully recovered and now the Hazelwood Power Station is set to be closed this year, which is likely to lead to further depression and disadvantage to residents.
Another result of corporate ownership and its focus on profits can be seen in the poor maintenance provided to mines, plants and powerlines. In February, 2009, devastating bushfires erupted in Victoria in which 173 people died and towns, houses, farms and forests were lost.
Gains from this enterprise are purely financial, and those gains would go to very few elite people, with possible political corruption meaning that a few others might also make financial gains
An electricity company was accused of starting the Kilmore East/Kinglake fires because of poor maintenance of its powerlines. A class action trial was due to begin, alleging a “break in an electrical conductor on a power pole” was the cause of the fire. The company announced an Australian $300 million settlement before the trial began, indicating it had no defence to the claims.
In February 2014, a fire began in the Morwell open-cut coal mine. It lasted for 45 days, shrouding the nearby town in smoke and ash, exposing residents to toxic carbon monoxide and they began to complain about adverse health effects. They were warned to stay indoors, and children were bussed to schools outside the area.
Three weeks later, health authorities advised vulnerable residents to leave town for their own safety. The Victorian government later commissioned an independent review of the fire, which found failings in the company’s preparedness and initial response to the fire.
Hazelwood Power Corporation was charged with 10 breaches of the Occupational and Health Safety Act. The inquiry also declared that the fire was likely to have contributed to an increase of deaths in the area. In addition, parents reported increased illnesses in their children, and experts found that residents were at risk of developing more health problems, including respiratory conditions, lung cancer, and strokes.
Although employment in the Latrobe Valley relied heavily on mining and power generation, the people paid a heavy price for that employment. Figures show that life expectancy of males in the Valley is 3.9 years below average and females 2.8 years below average. Investment in renewable energy, though, can create more jobs than similar investments in fossil fuel, so investing in renewable forms of energy can cause a dramatic reduction in pollution of our planet and still provide employment.
Unfortunately, coal continues to generate approximately 40% of the world’s electricity, and, despite positive evidence of the dangers it poses, many interests promote its use, even though alternative, renewable solutions are available. Promotion of its use is, of course, related to the massive financial profits that have been gained.
Presently in Australia, the Adani group, a multi-national company based in Ahmedabad, India, with holdings in the Cayman Islands, has approval (despite challenges from the Australian Conservation Foundation and Indigenous Native title determination) to develop the Carmichael coal mine in Northern Queensland.
The coal mine will measure 40 kilometres in diameter and its estimated carbon emissions will be higher than the annual emissions of the European Union. Adani will receive a government loan to construct a rail line to the port at Abbotts Point for shipment through the Great Barrier Reef, which is likely to cause irreversible damage to the world’s largest reef, which is already under severe stress due to climate change.
The Adani group is being investigated by Indian authorities for, among other things, artificially inflating power prices at the expense of consumers. It has a serious record of environmental destruction in India, including destruction of mangrove forests, and interfering with tidal creeks. It was allegedly involved in large scale corruption and the theft of massive amounts of iron ore, unauthorised construction and tax evasion. Yet it’s likely this coal will be used at the Rampal plant if it goes ahead.
Australian coal is generally regarded as, comparatively, “clean.” There is no such thing as clean coal. Australia’s thermal coal, in this case sub-bituminous, sometimes called black lignite, and in many countries considered to be brown coal, is high in energy content, meaning that 20% less coal needs to be burnt to generate one unit of energy than, for instance, Indonesian coal.
This is what gives rise to claims of “cleaner” coal. However, Australia’s coal has double the ash content of Indonesia’s, and ash pollution is extremely damaging. Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine coal, compared to Russian, Indonesian, or South African coal, is “low-energy, high-ash,” and would produce lower quality coal, only 10% better than India’s thermal coal.
The production of poor quality coal in Australia, for export to Bangladesh and the sub-continent, would damage both Australia’s and Asia’s environments. Ultimately, of course, it damages the entire world’s environment. Gains from this enterprise are purely financial, and those gains would go to very few elite people, with possible political corruption meaning that a few others might also make financial gains.
The mining industry claims that it provides employment, and is therefore desirable, but the production of renewable energy sources provides more employment, without all the negative side-effects of burning fossil fuels. In the interests of breathing cleaner air, drinking cleaner water, producing healthier crops, preserving marine and terrestrial environments and in the interests of the people who rely on the Sundarbans, we should veto coal and its production in favour of renewable energy.
Gloria Lappin lived and worked in the coal mining centre of the La Trobe Valley in Victoria, Australia. She holds a doctorate of philosophy and has taught at La Trobe University. She is active in promoting sustainable and socially just communities.