This is the Cost of Coal!


Sierra Club

Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club

Today the Sierra Club and Sierra Magazine released a photography project examining the effects of coal on the lives of everyday Americans. The feature, Cost of Coal, follows the life-cycle of coal, using sharp, poignant images to show the impact coal mining, burning and disposal has on families across the country.

The Cost of Coal project includes an 18-page photo spread (see a sampling of the photo essay below) in the November/December issue of Sierra, accompanied by a new, interactive website with more than 100 powerful photos and videos of individuals affected by coal. Sierra Magazine partnered with renowned photojournalist Ami Vitale to visit communities in West Virginia, Michigan and Nevada, and document firsthand the devastating consequences of coal on their lives. Through her captivating images, readers learn about the effects of mountaintop removal mining on a husband and wife in Appalachia, coal burning on the health of a family in Detroit and coal ash waste disposal on the entire Moapa Band of Paiutes community in Nevada.

Visitors to the Cost of Coal website can browse through slideshows, organized by location and story. Readers can also take action to help support solutions that would curb the dangerous mining, burning and waste disposal practices described in the article.

“Through the words and images of people most affected by coal pollution, the new Cost of Coal photo series puts a human face on the very real suffering caused by coal mining, coal-fired power plants, and coal waste,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Thanks to these powerful images and stories, readers can now see for themselves how Americans across the country must cope with the devastating effects of coal on their health and their communities, as they live in the shadow of King Coal.”

“Even though coal is what powers many of our homes, I had never seen coal in real life until I started on this project” said Ami Vitale, the award-winning photojournalist behind Cost of Coal. “I was so moved by meeting the people whose lives have been so deeply impacted by coal and by hearing their stories, that the first thing I did when I came home after shooting this story was to put solar panels up on the roof.”

“This photo feature may be one of the most powerful stories we’ve ever done,” said Sierra magazine executive editor Steve Hawk. “Our goal was to turn the camera away from wonky discussions about things like CO2 emissions and climate disruption, and focus instead on the immediate human costs of coal. I’m proud to be part of a project that, I hope, touches people on an emotional level through words, photos and video.”

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West Virginia

Mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and wiped whole towns from the map. Lindytown, West Virginia, once home to dozens of families, is now an isolated, lonely place, with only one original family remaining; everyone else sold out to Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources), which was laying waste to a nearby mountain. West of Lindytown, a mountaintop-removal mine caused the population of Blair to fall from 700 people in the 1990s to fewer than 50 today, according to the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance.  

Unsullied mountains in southern West Virginia. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


An aerial view of the mountaintop-removal mine that caused all but one family in Lindytown, West Virginia, to sell their home and move away. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


Trainloads of coal in Williamson, West Virginia. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club.


Donna Branham of Lenore, West Virginia, before and after she had her head shaved on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol to protest mountaintop-removal mining. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


Tori Wong of Virginia traveled with friends to the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston to participate in the Memorial Day protest against mountaintop-removal mining. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club



For generations, people in River Rouge, Michigan, have lived within sniffing distance of a coal-fired power plant, an oil refinery, a sewage-treatment plant, a steel mill, and other industrial polluters. No studies have precisely measured the cumulative health impacts of those operations on nearby residents, but in 2004 the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force calculated that particulate pollution from coal combustion at the River Rouge Power Plant alone (one of nearly 400 coal-fired plants still in operation nationwide) is annually responsible for 44 deaths, 72 heart attacks and 700 asthma attacks in the surrounding community.

The Marathon Petroleum oil refinery in southwest Detroit, which abuts River Rouge. As part of a $2.2 billion expansion that will enable it to process tar sands oil from Canada, Marathon has been buying homes adjacent to the plant. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


Fishing on the Detroit River, with the steel-making facilities of Zug Island in the background. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


La’Miyah Hildreth, 5, wears a nebulizer in the kitchen of her grandmother Siobhan Washington. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club



Since 1965 the coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, has dumped its combustion waste into uncovered “ponds” beside the Moapa Band of Paiutes Reservation. Tribal members believe that the coal ash—which contains mercury, arsenic, selenium, and other toxins and blows into their village in dust storms—has caused asthma attacks, cancer, heart disease, and many premature deaths among the 200 residents there. More than 1,100 coal-ash sites exist nationwide; none is subject to federal regulation.

The 557-megawatt Reid Gardner Generating Station first went into service in 1965. A second unit was added in 1968 and a third in 1976. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


Lane Miller, of Moapa Nevada, demonstrates his nebulizer. ”At least once a month he has to use a nebulizer to open up his lungs,” his mother, Kami said. ”If I neglect it, he has to go on steroids or it can turn into pneumonia or bronchitis.” Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club


Respiratory-relief supplies at the Hernandez home in Moapa, Nevada. Photo credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club

To read the full article and see the complete slide show and video library, visit the Cost of Coal website.

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.

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