A new look at coal in the US.

It’s well-known that the coal-fired power plants that provide the US with 50% of its electricity also inflict significant damage on the environment and citizens’ health. Coal plants spew particulate emissions that cause asthma and other respiratory woes — and they’re responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year. And then there’s the environmental damage inflicted during the process of extracting, transporting, and processing the stuff. And then, there’s coal’s contribution to climate change. All told, it costs the nation up to $500 billion a year. That’s the finding of a new Harvard study that, for the first time, examines the true cost of coal throughout its entire life cycle …

Clearly, the fact that coal contributes more global warming pollution than any other source in the nation is far from its only problem. But vested industry interests and its political allies have long claimed that coal is the cheapest energy source around — and if you look only at commodity prices on market exchanges, indeed, coal (sometimes) looks pretty cheap. Yet we know that’s only a small fraction of the true cost of coal.

Harvard professor Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, has just released a paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences entitled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.” Epstein symbolically announced the release of the study today aboard the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, which is in the midst of its Coal Free Future Tour. I was on board as well to report on the event.

The study is the first to look at the major costs of coal from extraction to combustion. It finds that coal costs $74 billion a year in public health burdens in Appalachian communities alone. Those costs come from increased health care costs, deaths and injuries that result from mining and transporting coal, and the emissions generated during the coal’s combustion.

The emissions of pollutants elsewhere were deemed to cost up to $187.5 billion a year, again due to the health costs of cancer, lung disease, and respiratory sickness. Mercury impacts account for another $29.3 billion. Epstein and his team also looked at the cost of coal’s spectacular carbon emissions, in the form of various climate impacts, and the way it’s already effecting land use, energy consumption, and food prices across the nation. These costs are estimated at a conservative $205 billion.

Meanwhile, the costs of the spillage of toxic waste and its cleanup, the impact of coal on crops, property values, and tourism account for billions more — up to $18 billion a year. Add it all up, and you find that coal costs the nation up to half a trillion dollars a year.

“And this is an underestimate,” Epstein said.

In the conclusion of his speech, Epstein suggested some solutions. “What can we do? We need to phase out coal rapidly. We need to move rapidly with healthy solutions.” Which means, he says, smart growth in cities, more green buildings, clean energy, rooftop gardens, public transport, and communities connected with light rail. “It means more jobs, cleaner air, and healthier cities,” Epstein said.