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Page added on October 31, 2007

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World’s growing dependence on coal leaving a trail of environmental devastation

It takes five to 10 days for the pollution from China’s coal-fired plants to make its way to the United States, like a slow-moving storm.

It shows up as mercury in the bass and trout caught in Oregon’s Willamette River. It increases cloud cover and raises ozone levels. And along the way, it contributes to acid rain in Japan and South Korea and health problems everywhere from Taiyuan to the United States.
This is the dark side of the world’s growing use of coal.

Cheap and abundant, coal has become the fuel of choice in much of the world, powering economic booms in China and India that have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Worldwide demand is projected to rise by about 60 percent through 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, most of it going to electrical power plants.

But the growth of coal-burning is also contributing to global warming, and is linked to environmental and health issues ranging from acid rain to asthma. Air pollution kills more than 2 million people prematurely, according to the World Health Organization.

“Hands down, coal is by far the dirtiest pollutant,” said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington who has detected pollutants from Asia at monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state. “It is a pretty bad fuel on all scores.”

“What we are facing in China is enormous economic growth, and … China is paying a price for it,” said Henk Bekedam, the country representative for the World Health Organization. “Their growth is not sustainable from an environmental perspective. The good news is that they realize it. The bad news is they’re dependent on coal as an energy source.”

But the costs go far beyond China. The soot from power plants boosts global warming because coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. And researchers from Texas A&M University found that air pollution from China and India has increased in cloud cover and major Pacific Ocean storms by 20 percent to 50 percent over the past 20 years.

Mercury, a byproduct of some coal-mining, is another major concern. The potent toxin falls into waterways and shows up in fish. Asia’s contribution to U.S. mercury levels has shot up over the past 20 years. Jacob estimated half of the mercury in the United States comes from overseas, especially China.


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