Coal is Dirty, Seward, photo by Russ Maddox
Coal dust covers snow in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Russ Maddox, February 2010

Although abundant here, Alaskans do not rely on coal as a primary fuel source. Here in Alaska, we are increasingly looking for cleaner sources of energy to supplement or replace fossil fuels. While there is increasing pressure to develop coal for foreign export and domestic use, coal is dirty. Coal exploration and development threatens human health, and our land, air, water and food, with hazardous emissions possible at every stage.

Coal is dirty and deadly. Pollutants from coal adversely affect all major organ systems in the human body and contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States. At every stage – from mining, transportation, storage, combustion, and disposal of post-combustion wastes – coal development is a threat to human and environmental health.

Two Bull Ridge Mine near Healy, Alaska
Usibelli’s Two Bull Ridge Mine near Healy, Alaska. Photo by Erin and Hig, Ground Truth Trekking

Health Hazards of Coal Mining

The coal mining industry is the leading cause of fatal injuries in the United States. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the fatality rate for coal mining in 2006 was 49.5 per 100,000 workers, more than 11 times greater than the fatality rate in all private industry. Inhaling coal dust also causes black lung disease in coal mine workers.

Coal mining is not only hazardous to workers. People living near coal mines have been found to have higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hypertension, lung disease, and kidney disease. Communities near coal mines may also experience health problems linked to water pollution, as exposed rock from rubble deposits and abandoned mines releases heavy metals and other pollutants that contaminate drinking water and surface water.

Coal Mining, Transportation & Health Fact Sheet pdf

Worker in plume of coal dust, Seward, Alaska
A worker stands in a plume of coal dust, as coal pours into a ship at the port in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Erin and Hig, Ground Truth Trekking

Health Hazards of Transporting Coal

In Alaska, coal is transported by truck, train, and ship.  For people living along transportation routes, health threats include respiratory and cardiovascular system effects from exposure to harmful air pollutants. Trains and trucks hauling coal release toxic air pollutants, including nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, primarily through diesel exhaust. These pollutants are associated with infant mortality, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), ischemic stroke, worsening of asthma, and lung cancer.

Coal trains, trucks, and stockpiles also release coal dust into the air, which degrades air quality and exposes nearby communities to dust inhalation. Health effects from exposure to coal dust include increased asthma, wheezing and cough in children. There is a wide range of health problems associated with exposure to heavy metals such as lead, selenium, and mercury that may be present in coal dust. Depending on the chemical composition of the coal, coal dust may be carcinogenic.

Coal Mining, Transportation & Health Fact Sheet pdf

Healy Coal Plant, Alaska
Healy Coal Plant by Erin and Hig, Ground Truth Trekking

Health Hazards of Burning Coal

According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, of all the phases of coal development, coal combustion exacts the greatest toll on human health. Emissions from burning coal damage the body’s respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Burning coal releases over 70 hazardous chemicals into the environment and contributes significantly to global warming. When coal is burned, trace amounts of mercury as well as other toxic chemicals present in coal are released into the environment.

Coal combustion pollutants and associated health effects include:

  • Mercury – brain damage, reproductive toxicity, cardiovascular effects in adults
  • Sulfur dioxide – respiratory irritation, low birth weight, increased risk of infant death
  • Nitrogen oxides – respiratory diseases in children, decreased lung function
  • Ozone – rapid shallow breathing, airway irritation, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, worsening of asthma; possibly associated with premature birth, cardiac birth defects, low birth weight, and stunted lung growth
  • Particulate matter – cardiac inflammation leading to heart attack and stroke, low birth weight, premature births, sudden infant death, asthma attacks, lung cancer
  • Carbon dioxide – health impacts from climate change, including infectious diseases, natural disasters, and adverse effects on water quality and food security

Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of mercury emissions in the U.S., accounting for 33% of all human-related environmental mercury emissions. The primary sources of mercury pollution in Alaska are emissions from Asian industry (including coal-fired power plants) and other global sources. This pollution from distant countries travels to Alaska via air and ocean currents. Developing Alaska’s coal for export to be burned in Asia does not protect Alaskans from hazardous coal combustion emissions due to the global transport of these pollutants.

The primary source of exposure to coal-related mercury is consumption of fish and seafood contaminated with methylmercury. In response to mercury levels detected by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Fish Monitoring Program, the State of Alaska issued fish consumption guidelines in 2007 to advise Alaskans on safe amounts and types of fish to eat based on mercury levels.

Coal, Mercury & Health Fact Sheet pdf

Toxic Trade Map: The Coal-to-Mercury Cycle between Alaska and China pdf (10MB file)


Coal Plant
Garden in front of the coal ash loading facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks coal‐fired power plant, June 2010

Health Hazards of Exposure to Coal Ash

Coal ash, or coal combustion waste, is the material that remains after coal is burned. Improper disposal of this waste in holding ponds or landfill sites poses a health hazard to nearby communities. The widespread use of coal ash as a filler in building materials may also result in hazardous exposures. A high percentage of coal ash is reused as filler in a range of materials, including soil, bricks, cement, drywall, and asphalt, and in recreational areas like sports fields and golf courses.

Alaska currently has six coal-fired power plants, all located between Healy and Fairbanks in Alaska’s Interior.  Coal ash from these facilities is used as fill in local areas, including public spaces, university grounds, and residential neighborhoods.

Coal ash poses a health hazard because it may contain heavy metals, radioactive elements, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and particulate matter, all of which contribute to public health and environmental problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that cancer risk due to arsenic exposure from contaminated drinking water was as high as one in 50 for people living near unlined coal ash impoundments. Children exposed in utero to coal ash and other combustion byproducts may suffer from developmental delays. Coal ash exposure is also linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems.

Coal Ash in Alaska: Our Health, Our Right to Know (Feb 2011) pdf

Coal Ash & Health Fact Sheet pdf

Coated in coal dust, Seward, Alaska
Coated in coal dust, Seward, Alaska. Photo by Erin and Hig, Ground Truth Trekking

Take Action!

Alaska Community Action on Toxics is working with Alaskans for Energy Freedom to inform Alaskans about the true cost of coal in the Last Frontier. Learn more about the Alaskans for Energy Freedom Campaign!

The EPA is currently considering proposals for coal ash regulations, and public input is encouraged.