The burning of coal is one of the biggest causes of air pollution and global warming due to its generation of carbon dioxide. Combusted coal also emits sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. These and several other air toxins generated by coal-burning power plants– e.g. nitrogen oxide, mercury, and arsenic– are not only detrimental to the environment, but they are also detrimental to human health.
Power plants that burn coal as a source of energy also generate a large amount of solid waste. A single plant can create hundreds of thousands of tons of ash and sludge per year, 75 percent of which will end up in landfills and surface impoundments. Toxic substances contained in this waste can easily contaminate drinking water supplies.
The way that coal is extracted is also harmful to the environment; surface mining often involves dramatically altering landscapes, and sometimes even entails the removal of entire mountaintops. Waste generated from these activities are usually dumped into streams and other water sources. The transportation of the large amounts of coal produced every year further contributes to pollution through the burning of fossil fuels.
Adding to catch22’s answer are problems with home use. That hasn’t happened much in the US or the UK in the last decades, but in my city there are still coal chutes, and bits of coal lying around in the dirt under the house.
Home use also has its problems. For one thing, neighbors who don’t use coal think it stinks. (It’s a matter of opinion. I think coal has complex and interesting smells.) There’s all kinds of things in coal, it’s mined because it’s cheap energy, not because it’s healthy energy. And even in the home, people are bound to get a good amount of what’s coming off the coal. Although coal companies went to lengths to clean coal, washing off the smaller particles, the dirt and the dust, coal was still extremely dirty. If you were stoking a fire, you’d wash your hands afterward.
So why use coal in the home at all, these days? It’s cheap. It can be easily and indefinitely stored — anywhere. And most important to me, it produces mysterious beautiful smells, and long-glowing embers that are quite different from those of wood.
Coal is absolutely not something we should be relying on for heat or cooking. But coal has been a part of the society and comfort of humankind for thousands of years. It’s a part of our heritage that billions of people have enjoyed.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
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