The Cost of Wisconsin’s Overreliance on Coal

Coal plant releasing plumes of smoke into the sky

Newly Released - May 26, 2020 - "The Cost of Coal"

Click here to read the full report.



Coal is costly.

Coal harms our health, pollutes our environment, and hurts our economy. Coal-fired power plants not only spew out toxic substances that inflict a devastating and immediate toll on local air and water quality, but they also release alarming amounts of carbon that will linger in the atmosphere for centuries and disturb the delicate balance of our entire climactic system — meaning these negative consequences transcend geographic and temporal boundaries and damage just about every part of our planet, especially our most vulnerable communities. Coal poisons everyone from the miners who extract it to the neighbors adjacent to coal-fired power plants and coal trains, all while costing more than most other sources of power.

1) Coal harms our health.

Over 1.2 million people, including nearly 350,000 children, live within 12 miles of a Wisconsin coal-fired power plant — meaning these residents are particularly vulnerable to the health dangers of burning coal. In fact, shutting down just a single coal plant prevents 38 heart attacks and 408 asthma attacks on average. Unfortunately, however, the health hazards aren’t just confined to the immediately adjacent areas — ultimately, nearly everyone is at risk.

  • Burning coal produces a mess of other toxic substances like heavy metals that end up in rivers, lakes, and groundwater — potentially contaminating food and drinking water sources. Mercury pollution stemming from coal-burning is particularly problematic, as coal-fired power plants produce 42 percent of the country’s mercury pollution. Just one drop can contaminate an entire lake and make all the lake’s fish hazardous to eat. Mercury is incredibly toxic — it harms nearly every major organ, including the kidneys, lungs, digestive system, and immune system. Its effects on the brain and nervous system, especially those of young children and developing fetuses, are especially destructive — it can cause tremors, memory loss, hearing loss, speech problems, congenital defects, psychological problems, and permanent cognitive effects, including Minamata disease.

  • Once coal is burned, a waste material — called coal ash — remains leftover. This byproduct is also incredibly toxic, filled with carcinogens and heavy metals, and it must be stored indefinitely in huge reservoirs of hazardous waste — some of them as large as 1000 acres. But nearly all of these impoundments are unlined or don’t use the necessary safety precautions, meaning they fail to contain the coal ash and allow this toxic sludge to seep into groundwater or overflow into neighboring environments. In fact, 91 percent of the plants contaminated groundwater, which is a drinking water source for 67 percent of Wisconsinites. To learn more about the harms of coal ash, click here.

  • Pieces of coal

    Coal doesn’t just magically appear at these coal-fired power plants — it must be mined, cleaned, and transported to them, and each of these stages generates pollution and harms human health. It’s well known that coal mining is incredibly unsafe and unhealthy for miners (causing coalworker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, in a significant portion of them, among other illnesses like cancer and silicosis), but coal mines also harm the health of nearby communities — leading to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as birth defects due to the plumes of coal dust these residents breathe in on a daily basis. While thankfully there are no coal mines in Wisconsin, Wisconsin residents often suffer from similar problems. Trains delivering thousands of tons of coal arrive in Wisconsin each day to supply the state’s coal-fired power plants, and this coal is then stored in enormous uncovered piles that release similar plumes of coal dust and shower local communities with toxic substances. Residents near the Oak Creek Power Plant in southeast Wisconsin have been particularly hard hit by this airborne coal, describing how on windy days black powder rains down on their homes and ultimately makes its way inside.

2) Coal pollutes our environment.

It’s not too hard to understand: clearcutting natural areas to pillage the earth for coal and then shipping it around the country to burn in huge factories doesn’t spell good news for our environment. As previously mentioned, burning coal pumps toxic fumes into our atmosphere, poisons our waters with heavy metals, and contaminates groundwater with coal ash. The litany of harms doesn’t stop there:

3) Coal hurts our economy.

  • Albuterol inhalerAll these calculations don’t even take into account the economic cost that coal exacts on the environment, public health, businesses, and other areas of society (what economists call negative externalities). These hidden side effects — from air and water pollution to environmental degradation to harmful health effects — are expensive. In fact, a Harvard economist estimated that coal causes $175 to $500 billion worth of damage each year to our country. Worst of all, coal companies don’t pay these costs — we do.

4) The harmful consequences of our reliance on coal disproportionately affect minority, low-income, and other vulnerable communities.

People of color are more likely to live near coal-fired power plants and coal ash waste sites, especially in the Southern United States. People who live next to coal plants breathe in higher levels of air pollution and toxic substances, and, not coincidentally, have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. In fact, black children are twice as likely to die from asthma compared to their white counterparts. To make things even worse, people of color are more likely to suffer from the adverse effects of climate change, including from vector-borne diseases and heatwaves. These glaring injustices — the consequences of institutional racism and discriminatory policies and practices toward Black and Brown U.S. residents — must be redressed. Coal mines, power plants, and waste sites are also much more likely to be located in low-income communities. And these same communities are also most vulnerable to the hazards of climate change due to limited expendable income to respond to natural disasters and other climate impacts.

All of this important information can get pretty impersonal and hard to process. What does it all mean for the average person? Click here to learn more about one family's struggle living near a coal plant