The Visible Impacts

The world gets huge amounts of energy from coal—and puts huge energy into extracting it from the ground. The carbon that ends up in the atmosphere is just a ghostly echo of an industry of monumental scale and impact.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Juliette, Georgia
Steam and smoke rise from the cooling towers and chimneys of the Robert W. Scherer power plant, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. It burns 12 million tons of coal a year.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Poca, West Virginia
The Poca High School “Dots” practice near an American Electric Power coal-fired plant that powers nearly two million homes. Scrubbers clean some of the sulfur and mercury—but not the carbon—from the smoke.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Gillette, Wyoming
Finely pulverized coal flames inside the 186-foot-high boiler of the Dry Fork Station power plant near Gillette, Wyoming. The fire heats the water-filled tubes at the core of the boiler, producing steam that drives the plant’s turbine.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Denver, Colorado
Coal provides almost three-fifths of the electricity for Denver and its suburbs; natural gas provides much of the rest. Under state law, for-profit utilities must produce 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Queensland, Australia
An automated bucket-wheel excavator loads coal into ships bound for China and India. Australia is second only to Indonesia in coal exports.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Shuozhou, China
Amid the withered stalks of last year’s corn, a farmer prepares for spring near a power plant in Shanxi Province. The facility, which supplies electricity to Beijing, 200 miles away, covers local fields, crops, and people with soot.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Datong, China
At a coal terminal in Shanxi Province workers pick rocks from low-priced coal as it moves past on a conveyor belt. Often working without masks that would protect them from coal dust, they earn three dollars for an 11-hour shift.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Shuozhou, China
The sun is sometimes obscured by soot from the Shentou Number 2 power plant in Shanxi Province, China. A lightning-bolt sculpture stands in the center of the neighborhood that houses the plant’s workers.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick; Panorama composed of two images

Madison, West Virginia
They call it mountaintop removal. For each ton of coal taken from the Hobet 21 mine, 20 cubic yards of mountain are blasted away, then dumped in valleys. Hundreds of square miles of Appalachian ridges have been dismantled this way.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Norfolk, Virginia
At the Lamberts Point Coal Terminal, railcars loaded with coal line up to fill waiting ships. Some 20 million tons of coal—about 2 percent of U.S. production—move through this terminal each year, most of it from Appalachia.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Wright, Wyoming
The Black Thunder mine, one of the world’s largest, covers 75 square miles of public and private land. Trucks the size of houses haul more than 90 million tons of coal a year to trains, which carry most of it to eastern power plants.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Jharkhand, India
A young boy carries a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives. His family will burn the coal to make coke—a cleaner and hotter-burning fuel—which they’ll either sell or use themselves for heating and cooking.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Jharkhand, India
Northeastern India has a long history of coal mining, and fires ignited by mining accidents almost a century ago still smolder in deeply buried coal deposits. In this mining camp the air is thick day and night with smoke from coal fires.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Meghalaya, India
A miner works in one of hundreds of coal mines in eastern India that are neither sanctioned nor regulated by government. He lies on his back in low-ceilinged, unsupported passageways, without protective clothing, using a pick and shovel to load his cart.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Meghalaya, India
Coal is lifted out of the mine shaft two tons at a time.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Meghalaya, India
The coal is trucked to a depot, where it is sorted by size and quality.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Meghalaya, India
A coal miner climbs a shaky ladder to daylight. A 19th-century mine in the U.S. or Europe might have looked just as hellish; mines there are safer now. But coal’s environmental costs have grown—and become global.