Coal, Possibly the Uncleanest Fuel

Posted by By at 20 July, at 12 : 29 PM Print

King Coal loudly proclaims its place in our society, from the employment it claims to offer to the electricity it sends to our homes. Billboards along the Interstate insist that coal – often referred to as “clean coal” – is the way to go for continued prosperity and energy independence.

But the billboards and television commercials leave out some established, and troubling, truths their supporters hope we will not notice lurking behind those huge signs.

According to an EPA report, the past 20 years of mountain top removal – the process of pushing blankets of soil into adjacent streams and valleys to expose a layer of coal – have destroyed or degraded more than 11 percent of the forests in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. The affected area is area larger than the State of Delaware.

Dirt pushed out of the king’s way has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams, and eradicated several species from the area – and possibly from the globe.

Based on studies of over 1200 stream segments impacted by mountaintop mining and valley fills, the Environmental Protection Agency has discovered:

  • Forests are fragmented as mining operations are moved from a played-out mountaintop to a new, more promising, site;
  • Increased mineral levels in the remaining waterways are revealed in the eradication of fresh water species, and increased populations of more pollutant-tolerant species; and
  • Although abandoned mine sites are regraded and revegetated, regrowth is often slowed as roots attempt to reestablish in ground compacted by all the heavy equipment used in the mining operation.

The EPA report notes that “cumulative environmental costs have not been identified (and) there may be social, economic and heritage issues.”

Ya think?

And then there are the human health costs. The incidence of “black lung disease” has doubled in the past decade, as miners begin to show the effects of inhaling coal dust. It’s a problem we read about in history books – an affliction of men who worked deep in the ground to grind and withdraw the black burnable material. The disease reportedly has quadrupled in parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

In June, the Natural Resource Defense Council reported that 25 coal-fired power plants are responsible for half the Great Lakes region’s mercury pollution. The report identified Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana as leaders in mercury pollution production.

In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, requiring EPA to control toxic air pollution. It took more than 20 years, but this year the agency published rules to limit mercury pollution from coal-fired electricity generating plants.

The rules require the nation’s coal-fired power plants to limit airborne mercury emissions and other toxic air pollutants by 2015. Predictably, power companies screamed in pain about excessive costs and insufficient time. Two decades was not, it seems, enough to get started cleaning our air.

The king doesn’t put on billboards that more than 100 aging coal-fired generating plants already are slated to shut down or convert to natural gas – moves the industry used as examples of onerous federal regulation, but which, in fact, already had been in the works, driven by market-based economic considerations rather than government regulations.
But one day, we will see billboards and television ads touting King Coal’s (voluntary) switch to “cleaner burning natural gas.”

Another point not on the billboards is how much we could save on health care if we at least clean up the effluent pouring from coal-fired smokestacks. Tthe so-called Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are projected to be worth $37 billion to $90 billion in 2016 alone. Add the federal Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, also published this year, and the estimates are for 46,000 fewer premature deaths, 540,000 fewer asthma attacks among children, and nearly 25,000 fewer emergency room visits and hospital admissions. EPA says the savings in health care costs will be up to $380 billion.

The damage is long lasting, in environmental and human toll, and not easily repaired
Many Pennsylvanians are well versed in the poisonous runoff that still siphons millions from public coffers, instead of from a strip mining industry giants that abandoned the state nearly a century ago. In the Colorado Rockies, long closed silver mines still turn mountain streams green.

One day, we will begin to notice the effects of mountaintop removal in the Appalachian Mountains, and surface stripping in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

We will need longer to realize Grandpa, or maybe Dad, died earlier than we would have liked because, while the evening news was full of chatter about obesity, the air was clogging his lungs with all sorts of junk he was not equipped to inhale.

Photo by appalachian.voices

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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at john@JohnMesseder.com - Email jmesseder

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