Coal has long been a target of environmentalist anger. Soot, strip-mining, smokestacks—so many ugly features. Much of that opposition is overblown, of course (we’ve got to get energy from somewhere), but some of it has merit. This story from Ohio exhibits one of the genuine problems. The state’s taxpayers have to foot a $300 million bill for cleaning up the environmental messes coal companies have left. Some, but only a small part, of that is being paid for by corporate fees and taxes.
Free-market environmentalists, like the good folks at PERC, insist that these kinds of externalities can be accounted for in a properly constructed market, rather than relying on the very blunt and usually inequitable tool of government to take care of environmental fallout from industrial activitiy. I’m inclined to agree, but I wonder how such a market would work in this case. Maybe the source of the problem is the 1978 federal law cited by the article, which requires states to help companies repair damaged land—did this encourage irresponsible practices by coal producers?