Harmful Effects and Policy

Harmful Effects of the Coal Industry

Over the past few decades, the region of the Colorado Plateau has experienced a slow deterioration of its once ideal atmosphere (Grahame & Sisk, 2002). Coal-burning power plants are largely responsible for this change producing 64% of Arizona’s air pollution (Grand Canyon Trust). As the population grows and the energy demands of nearby cities, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, increase, these power plants inflict more and more damage upon the environment and its inhabitants. Recent studies show that each year, 17 coal-burning stations on or around the Colorado Plateau dump 132 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 270,000 tons of nitrogen oxides combined (Grand Canyon Trust). These chemicals contribute to the global warming effect and threaten to offset the balance of the delicate conditions in which the region’s rich wildlife and plant-life can survive. Of equal concern is the air quality’s threat to the health of its human inhabitants. Asthmatics, the elderly, and children are particularly susceptible to respiratory illnesses due to pollution. Aside from harming the ecological system, coal-burning power plants strain water resources, further contributing to a human-induced change upon the environment. To facilitate transportation from mining sites, such as Black Mesa, to the power plants, coal is transformed into a slurry form (Grahame & Sisk, 2002). This depletes ground water in an already arid environment contributing to droughts, loss of native vegetation and wildlife habitats, and increase of invasive plant species.

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona (Grahame & Sisk, 2002)

Related Policies

Clean Air Act: requires an operating permit for commercial sources designating what type of chemical and how much can be released (EPA) works with governors and local legislators to create an Implementation plan where standards are not being met; also enforced through penalties and court action (EPA) Mohave Generating Plant violated Clean Air Act and was shut down in 2005 through a lawsuit by Navajo and Hopi nations who also cut off their reservation’s water supply to the plant (EIA). Executive Order 2010-06: established the Climate Change Oversight Group under Governor Brewer to monitor the work of the Western Climate Initiative and to advise the Governor has not achieved measurable results (EPA) Economic Implications

Coal currently accounts for about half of the nation’s electrical needs. While its prices have risen moderately, prices of oil and natural gas have increased sharply over the past decade. Therefore, coal has emerged as the preferred resource. However, residents of coal-rich areas are reaping very few financial benefits. They receive royalty payments and relatively low-income jobs through mining contracts and power plant facilities while non-resident shareholders, often in larger cities, receive the most profit (Science Daily). Meanwhile, residents continue to be forced from their homes. Their, sometimes sacred, environments are exploited and the ecosystem is perhaps irreparably damaged (Grand Canyon Trust).

Moral Considerations

Now, more than ever, renewable energy is a growing area of exploration and investment. With the resources and the technology available, it seems natural that our nation’s energy demand should be able to be met while keeping our environment intact. Delaying this process, however, is the low cost of coal, its abundance, and its ability to comply with federally regulated standards given its low sulfur content in regions such as the Colorado Plateau (ScienceDaily). Coal-burning plants have also received support from initiatives that research cleaner practices of burning coal. It is a convenient, established, and profitable method that shareholders will not easily abandon. Nevertheless, the amount water that it demands in transportation, heating, and cooling, are huge disadvantages of coal-burning plants, particularly as this contributes to drought and warming. The amount of chemicals it pours into the atmosphere also leads to more extreme temperature ranges, thus making life impossible for some species and damaging the overall ecosystem. Proactive measures, therefore, must be seriously explored, which involves ethical considerations of the environment as central to our greater ecosystem, rather than simply profit and tradition. A former representative in the Hopi nation summarized the problem by saying, “What we have is the absence of political will” (Grand Canyon Trust). Although the government may be unsuccessful at directly legislating environmental morality, they may achieve progress toward climate stability by encouraging the development and implementation of innovations for renewable resources and by placing stricter standards on coal-burning power plants and continuing to enforce them. Furthermore, local groups have pioneered change in our ethical considerations. The Grand Canyon Trust, for instance, participates in community outreach in which it educates the public about greenhouse gas emissions and the importance of a clean environment (Grand Canyon Trust). The group also organized the first training workshop in the Southwest for global warming activists. Individual efforts can reinforce this by investing in solar panels and wind turbines when appropriate. This participation of the community is vital to expanding the energy market’s use of renewable resources. In order for a change to occur, it must not be guided profits of long-standing corporations but by enterprises, whose ethical considerations include the environment and our symbiotic relationship with it.