Coal is a carbon based sedimentary rock which currently fuels for over 40% of the worlds demand for electric power. It is a significant fossil fuel as it has played an important role in the advancement of technology and civilization in general. Although, primarily consisting of carbon, it also contains traces of sulphur, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, which when burned, can be released into the atmosphere in the form of gasses. These gasses, when present in excess in the environment, can lead to major environmental and health and safety issues.
In this report I will be discussing the major health, safety and environmental issues surrounding the use of coal in electricity generation. I will discuss the relevant legislations and safeguards that are required, precautions needed and the conclusions derived from the information provided.
Electricity generation is one of the main uses of coal as it is the most abundant fossil fuel on the planet. The process involves coal being burnt to heat water which produces steam. The steam generated rotates turbines which in turn are attached to a generator producing electricity. The major environmental issues surrounding the use of coal for electricity generation commence from the mining of coal.
Effects of Coal Mining
The mining of coal has a direct impact on the environment. It disrupts local wildlife as large areas are cleared for mining. Some mining techniques involve blasting a crater deep into the surface of the earth to expose the coal for mining. This impacts the environment in the following ways:-
- Destruction of landscape
- Degradation of visual environment
- Destruction of agricultural and forest lands
- Noise Pollution
- Truck traffic
- Sedimentation and erosion.
Other significant issues in relation to mining include fugitive dust emissions and disposal of overburden and waste rock [1.]
Include worker force, working in caves etc
The production of electricity from coal, although being one of the oldest, poses a great challenge for humanity. Efficiency for such a method is low, ranging from 25% to 40% of electricity generated from the conversion of heat to electricity via coal . Some of the main health, safety and environmental include the following:
- When coal is burnt, harmful waste gasses such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides gases are released into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide produced is twice as much when compared to the burning of natural gas. Different grades of coal release varying amount of carbon dioxide into the environment, e.g. black coal releases 3 times as much CO2 as natural gas. Other waste includes arsenic and ash. All the above increase the amount of green house gasses present in the atmosphere, thereby contributing significantly towards the effect. This, as observed over the past 100 years is a major contribution towards global warming.
- Methods have been developed to make the process of generating electricity more efficient and less polluting. Coal can be cleaned and/or turned into a liquid of gas using a process known as coal liquefaction where the coal is either hydrogenated or carbonised . However, these processes have yet to be fully developed to be used on a commercial scale and in the process add to the expense in the context of pollution. Siemens are to modernise their steam power plant due to new turbine technology which allows plants to cut CO2 levels by 600,000 tonnes per year .
- Coal combustion also releases radioactive materials which include but are not limited to uranium and thorium. It has been estimated by the ORNL in the US that coal radiation is more radioactive than nuclear waste. In their findings, people living close to coal power plants and similar or the same amount of radiation as compared to those living next to nuclear power plants 
- Gram for gram, it is known that nuclear power plants produce more radioactive materials. However, due to the shielding that is implemented in such plants and the manner of waste disposal, it is has less effects. On the other hand, plants that produce waste from burning coal are not handled in the same manner and thus lead to such situations. Coal ash is not disposed off in an adequate conduct.
- Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 -
- The Coal Mines (Control of Inhalable Dust) Regulations 2007 - This regulation sets out the amount of dust workers in the mines can be exposed to. Steps have to be taken to identify the sources of dust and procedures implemented to reduce these as far as practically possible. It is the duty of the employers to provide health checkups to monitor levels.
- Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991 -
- Coal Energy Systems, Bruce G Miller 2005
- http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/eng99/eng99187.htm (Accessed 8th February 2009 at 20:00pm)
- Friedrich Bergius (1884-1949), p. 62 in 'Chemistry in our time', Issue of April 1985, Weinheim, Germany.
- http://w1.siemens.com/responsibility/en/environment/portfolio/fossil_power_generation.htm (Accessed 8th February 2009)
- www.ornl.gov (Accessed 8th February 2009 at 22:15pm)
- www.hsa.gov.uk (Accessed 8th February 2009 at 23:00pm)