Killer coal falling out of fashion

'These things happen. This is what happens in coal mining. There is no such thing as accident-free work."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reaction to his country's worst industrial disaster, which has killed some 300 miners in Soma, north of Izmir, seems the height of heartlessness. And it's consistent: he shrugged off a - smaller - fatal accident four years ago with the comment that mining "has dying in its destiny".

Rescue workers carry the body of a miner outside the coal mine in Soma, Turkey.
Rescue workers carry the body of a miner outside the coal mine in Soma, Turkey. Photo: AP

Outrageous, you may say - especially when Turkey, according to the International Labour Organisation, is the world's third worst country for deaths at work, notorious for mining accidents. But the premier's callousness contains a kernel of truth, for coal - the most used, and still most rapidly growing, fuel for generating power - is arguably the planet's deadliest substance. Indeed, we are perhaps guilty of a degree of cynicism ourselves, for we routinely tolerate infinitely more death and disability than would doom such rival sources as shale gas or nuclear power.

Turkey lost some 1,000 miners in accidents between 2002 and 2012. But even this appalling tally fades into insignificance besides the more than 100,000 killed in the United States during the last century, or even the 6,027 fatalities in China alone in 2004.

That's just the start. More than 75,000 American miners have died of pneumoconiosis just since 1968, and the incidence of the disease, after dropping dramatically, is now rising again as people work longer hours in smaller pits where dust seems to be less well suppressed. And one in every six suffers from bronchitis, even if they do not smoke.

Coal menace

But this is still just a small fraction of the toll from coal; most arises from burning it, not digging it out. Emissions from coal-fired power stations in the European Union alone are reckoned to kill more than 18,200 people a year, with another 24,000 deaths in the United States.

Every year, the Union of Concerned Scientists once calculated, just one medium-sized US coal plant emits 500 tons of the tiny airborne particles that are the main killers - causing heart and lung disease, and strokes - as well as 10,000 tons each of deadly sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to acid rain and smog respectively; the NOx is about as much as is produced by half a million cars.

Add to that 720 tons of carbon monoxide, 220 tons of hydrocarbons (which also help form smog), 225lb of arsenic, and 114lb of lead and you begin to get the picture. And then there's mercury: coal-fired plants were reckoned to be responsible for a third of all human emissions of the toxic metal, which so contaminates the blood of up to 600,000 babies in the US each year as to cause life?long intelligence loss.

All this before any mention of coal's contribution to climate change. Yet, as the source of nearly half the world's emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel, this is potentially its most deadly contribution.

Nevertheless, as the International Energy Agency reported, its use continues to grow "unrelentingly". Some 1,200 new coal-fired power stations are planned around the world. Turkey accounts for more than 50, with the biggest programme of its kind in Europe, but it is far outdistanced by India, which gets 60 per cent of its power from the fuel, and by China, which accounts for about half of the entire world's production and consumption.

China has burned it for at least 3,000 years - Marco Polo reported back wonderingly that the Chinese had so much of it that they could enjoy three hot baths a week - but a report co-authored by the British economist Sir Nicholas Stern concluded that if it continued to increase its use at recent rates for just another 10 years the world would find it "almost impossible" to avoid dangerous climate change.

Yet there are signs of change. President Obama is expected to announce a crackdown on US coal-burning in the next two weeks, defying danger to Democratic seats in mining states. The Californian port of Oakland has turned down a terminal to export the mineral, though it would have brought thousands of jobs.

There is a growing revolt against it in India. And China has begun closing coal-fired power stations and curtailing the construction of new ones in order to combat devastating air pollution in its cities: some experts expect its carbon emissions to peak next decade. In all, Citibank concluded this week, demand for coal is in "structural decline".

So the Turkish tragedy comes at a crucial moment for the world's dirtiest fuel. Can we perhaps hope that its savage reminder of the mineral's unacceptable toll on health and the world's systems will help turn it into a tipping point?

The Daily Telegraph