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Original author: 
Nate Anderson


Bitcoin mining takes a lot of computing power—so naturally someone created a piece of malware to mine on other people's computers.

Kaspersky Lab

Mark Gimein is something of a Bitcoin skeptic, but in addition to his concerns about Bitcoin not being a "real currency," he's now charging that it has created "a real-world environmental disaster."

Writing in Bloomberg News, Gimein notes that mining Bitcoins—performing the computationally expensive calculations needed to define new Bitcoins—uses power. A lot of power. (Read our 2011 Bitcoin primer for more details.) He writes:

About 982 megawatt hours a day, to be exact. That’s enough to power roughly 31,000 US homes, or about half a Large Hadron Collider. If the dreams of Bitcoin proponents are realized, and the currency is adopted for widespread commerce, the power demands of bitcoin mines would rise dramatically.

If that makes you think of the vast efforts devoted to the mining of precious metals in the centuries of gold- and silver-based economies, it should. One of the strangest aspects of the Bitcoin frenzy is that the Bitcoin economy replicates some of the most archaic features of the gold standard. Real-world mining of precious metals for currency was a resource-hungry and value-destroying process. Bitcoin mining is too.

Gimein draws on the stats provided by Bitcoin-focused site Blockchain.info. The numbers fluctuate a bit with each day of calculations being tracked. According to Blockchain's stats this weekend, the last 24 hours of worldwide mining activity burned through 928.24 megawatt hours of power while miners calculated 59,502.6 gigahashes per second. Total power bill: $139,236.07.

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Coal occupies a central position in modern human endeavors. Last year over 7000 megatons were mined worldwide. Powerful, yet dirty and dangerous, use of coal is expanding every year, with 2010 witnessing a production increase of 6.8%. Around 70 countries have recoverable reserves, which some estimates claim will last for over a hundred years at current production levels. Mining for coal is one of the world's most dangerous jobs. While deadliest in China, where thousands of miners die annually, the profession is still hazardous in the West and other regions as well. Our mining and use of coal accounts for a variety of environmental hazards, including the production of more CO2 than any other source. Other concerns include acid rain, groundwater contamination, respiratory issues, and the waste products which contain heavy metals. But our lives as lived today rely heavily on the combustible sedimentary rock. Over 40% of the world's electricity is generated by burning coal, more than from any other source. Chances are that a significant percentage of the electricity you're using to read this blog was generated by burning coal. Gathered here are images of coal extraction, transportation, and the impact on environment and society. The first eight photographs are by Getty photographer Daniel Berehulak, who documented the lives of miners in Jaintia Hills, India. -- Lane Turner (48 photos total)
22-year-old Shyam Rai from Nepal makes his way through tunnels inside of a coal mine 300 ft beneath the surface on April 13, 2011 near the village of Latyrke, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. In the Jaintia hills, located in India's far northeast state of Meghalaya, miners descend to great depths on slippery, rickety wooden ladders. Children and adults squeeze into rat hole like tunnels in thousands of privately owned and unregulated mines, extracting coal with their hands or primitive tools and no safety equipment. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

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Rich Shulman writes

We are pretty used to reading about safety and environmental issues with coal mines in China and the United States. Now, we are learning about India, the world's third largest producer.

As the Indian magazine Frontline reported in 2006:

The haphazard mining has been taken to such absurd levels that Ladrymbai town is sitting on a rabbit warren of crisscrossing tunnels. Should a major earthquake occur in this seismic zone the entire town could cave in, residents fear. They have to negotiate mountains of coal lying all around them, blocking their doorways and polluting water sources and fields. Their children have nowhere to play, except on coal heaps. The destruction of tree cover has seen a fall in the level of groundwater and rainwater run-off. There is no access to clean drinking water.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A crane lifts miners out of a 300ft deep mine shaft, as they head out for their lunch break on April 13 near the village of Latyrke near Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. The Jaintia hills, located in India's far North East state of Meghalaya, miners descend to great depths on slippery, rickety wooden ladders. Children and adults squeeze into rat hole like tunnels in thousands of privately owned and unregulated mines, extracting coal with their hands or primitive tools and no safety equipment. Workers can earn as much as $150 per week or 30,000 Rupees per month, significantly higher than the national average of $15 per day. After traversing treacherous mountain roads, the coal is delivered to neighboring Bangladesh and to Assam from where it is distributed all over India, to be used primarily for power generation and as a source of fuel in cement plants. Many workers leave homes in neighboring states, and countries, like Bangladesh and Nepal, hoping to escape poverty and improve their quality of life. Some send money back to loved ones at home, whilst many others squander their earnings on alcohol, drugs and prostitution in the dusty, coal mining towns like Lad Rymbai. Some of the labor is forced, and an Indian NGO group, Impulse, estimates that 5,000 privately-owned coal mines in Jaintia Hills employed some 70,000 child miners. The government of Meghalaya refuted this figure, claiming that the mines had only 222 minor workers. Despite the ever present dangers and hardships, children, migrants and locals flock to the mines hoping to strike it rich in India's wild east.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

22-year-old Shyam Rai from Nepal makes his way through a rat hole tunnels inside of a coal mine 300 ft beneath the surface on April 13 near the village of Latyrke near Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Inebriated workers loiter at the site of a coal depot on April 14 in Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. Local schools in the area, providing free tuition, find it difficult to convince parents of the benefits of education, as children are seen as sources of income. The lure of the mines is stronger than that of the classroom.

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