While the damage done to the environment by burning coal is a hotly debated topic that has become even mere pressing with the breakneck growth of developing economies like China and India, the effect it has on people across the United States and other developed countries is less often exposed. Despite warnings from environmentalist about the effects of coal on the planet's climate and efforts by governments, mostly half-hearted, of sourcing more energy from renewables, coal still accounted for 42% of all power generation in the USA in 2011. Much of this coal is mined in the US itself, with utilities buying over 90% of all coal mined n the country. Every stage of power generation using coal affects certain populations living near coal mines and power plants. Mountain-top removal mines can destroy thousands of acres of land, poison the water supply and make whole swathes of land uninhabitable. Power Plants belch a toxic cocktail of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxides and once burnt, vast quantise of ash and sludge containing arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium can leach into groundwater and spread into the air.
Ami Vitale travelled with Steve Hawk, the executive editor of the Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, one of the oldest grassroots environmental organisations in the US, to meet people across the nation, from West Virginia to Michigan and Nevada, and record the stories of those who are paying the cost of coal.