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Coal Sucks Water

SOMERSET, CO - JULY, 2009: A miner brings down a longwall unit in an area were the mining is finished underground at the Oxbow Somerset Mine.
Photo © Heather Rousseau / Aspen Daily News

The United States produces 1 billion tons of coal a year, most of it burned in the nation's 600 coal-fired utilitiies. In the competition between energy and water, coal is in a league by itself. Roughly half of the 410 billion gallons of water withdrawn every day from the nation's rivers, lakes, and aquifers is used to mine coal, and cool electric power generating stations, most of which burn coal.

The Department of Energy forecasts that energy demand in the U.S. will grow 40 percent in the next four decades, and much of that growth will occur in the fast-growing southwest, Rocky Mountain region, and southeast, where climate change is reducing rainfall and snowmelt. Where coal falls in the nation's energy picture will be decided, in large part, by the industry's access to fresh water.

Coal, though, also is the largest source of climate-changing emissions of any industrial sector, as well as a significant source of water pollution. Evidence of the unholy water and coal alliance is visible along Virginia's Clinch River and one of its tributaries, Dumps Creek. In the last half-century, three toxic spills have contaminated the Clinch. But it's not unusual for state regulatory agencies to turn a blind eye when coal companies violate the Clean Water Act. In 2009, a New York Times investigation found that state agencies nationwide have taken action against fewer than three percent of Clean Water Act violators.

Feature Stories

A Desperate Clinch: Coal Production Confronts Water Scarcity

In contest with coal, water takes a beating.

Where Energy Development Puts Rivers at Risk

American Rivers’ annual tally of threatened rivers highlights effects of drilling for natural gas.

Coal Stories

Water Pollution Solution — New York Experiments with Coal Tar “Sponges” in Hudson River

Testing new methods to remove residual coal tar from riverbeds in New York.

Coal Ash Contaminates Groundwater and Drinking Water Sites in 21 States, Study Finds

The EPA must do a better job of regulating the waste and protecting the nation’s water supply.

Georgia’s Citizenry Reacts to Nuclear Power Proposal

Without sufficient nuclear power, dirty and expensive coal might be the only alternative.

Race to the Finish: Coal Run Receives Water, City and County Plan to Appeal

Coal Run, a community denied water on allegedly racial grounds, can now turn on the tap at will.


Photo Slideshow: A Desperate Clinch — Coal Production Across America

A look at the places and faces affected by coal production in the United States.

Infographic: Coal and Water – A Resource Mismatch

The contest between coal-fired energy production and water demand is a mismatch.

Video: Toxic Coal Ash Town in Indiana

A small Indiana town is slated for cleanup as an EPA Alternative Superfund Site.

Q&A: Jennifer Turner on Water Challenges for Growing China

“China is a very energy hungry country, so it’s not surprising that they are damming the rivers.”




  • Reuters EPA Eases Rule on Mountaintop Coal Mining Debris (December 3, 2008)
  • The New York Times E.P.A. Moves to Limit Water Pollution from Mining (April 1, 2010)
  • The New York Times Cleansing the Air at the Expense of Waterways (October 12, 2009)
  • The New York Times Water Polluters Near You: Coal-Fired Power Plants, Nationwide Map (2010)


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