The renewable era is still far away. Despite the attention and rhetoric that has been given over to green energy projects, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced this week that coal companies would be able to take a whack at mining 2.35 billion tons of coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. A new oil slick appeared off the coast of Louisiana. And Japanese authorities warned Tokyo residents that the city’s water contained levels of radioactive material unsafe for infants to consume.
The black rock
Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz calls Big Coal’s new opportunities in Wyoming “an enormous expansion in coal mining that threatens to increase U.S. climate pollution by an amount equivalent to more than half of what the United States currently emits in a year.” The Powder River Basin is the most productive coal region in the country, and as the Interior Department noted in its announcement of the coal lease sale, Wyoming as a whole accounts for 40% of all coal used in domestic electricity generation. (In John McPhee’s 2005 New Yorker piece on coal trains, he follows coal mined in the Powder River Basin to a power plant in Georgia, for instance.)
The DOI emphasized the role of coal in the country’s energy mix and its importance for creating jobs in Wyoming; Hurowitz read a different message in this announcement. His analysis is scathing:
Despite his administration’s rhetorical embrace of clean energy, Obama is effectively using modest wind and solar investments as cover for a broader embrace of dirty fuels. It’s the same strategy BP, Chevron, and other major polluters use: tout modest environmental investments in multi-million dollar PR campaigns, while putting the real money into fossil fuel development.
Exposure to radiation
At Truthout, H. Patricia Hynes has a similarly dour view of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the country’s nuclear power plants. “This regulatory agency has never seen a nuclear plant it didn’t like,” she writes.
Since the nuclear crisis in Japan, American leaders have been at pains to remind nervous citizens that nuclear energy is cleaner than coal and will continue to contribute to U.S. power. But as Hynes points out, even in the absence of crisis, nuclear plants come with consequences: they leave behind radioactive tailings, depleted uranium and spent nuclear fuel. And during their life cycle, Hynes writes:
Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release large amounts during accidents. For this latter reason, a 2003 expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that potassium iodide pills be provided to everyone 40 and younger who lives near a nuclear power plant to protect against exposure to radioactive iodine.
Of course, the risks in a crisis are great, too. In Japan, people living near the Fukushima plant are being exposed to levels of radiation higher than they should be, Democracy Now! reports. Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action, in Kyoto, told Amy Goodman, “The Japanese government admitted that 30 kilometers outside—this is not an evacuated zone—a person could have been exposed to as much as 100 millisieverts of radiation. That would be twice the amount of the evacuation threshold established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. And yet, the Japanese government refuses to evacuate people from beyond a 20-kilometer—that’s a 12-mile—area.”
The full impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan may not be obvious for years; that’s one of the reasons radiation exposure plays on people’s fears so effectively. One of the scary things about nuclear meltdowns or oil spills or coal smog is that it takes a long time for the negative effects to be dealt with. Michigan, for instance, is still struggling with the aftermath of the oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River this summer.
This spill was smaller than the BP disaster, but as Change.org’s Jamie Friedland reports, activists are finding oil in supposedly cleaned sections of the river and a clean-up worker was fired after he witnessed and then talked about other workers hiding oil they were supposed to be dealing with. And, Friedland writes, the county-level task force that was supposed to be watching the process has accomplished little in its short existence.
These sorts of stories are playing out all of the time, on larger and smaller scales. As Care2′s Beth Buczynski writes, another well in the Gulf Coast is leaking. It has released only a small amount of oil, but it’s a reminder that our energy system is routinely polluting the environment.
These pollutants pose a danger to people, too, and for years after they have entered the system. At In These Times, R.M. Arrieta writes about the impacts of development by Lennar Corporation at Hunters Point Naval Ship yard, a Superfund site. Arrieta writes, “When Lennar started grading a hillside, heavy equipment breaking the serpentine rock in the hill released plumes of naturally occurring asbestos. Nearby residents complained of bloody noses, headaches, breathing problems and increased incidents of asthma attacks.”
That is just one of the problems the community has encountered so far. It’s convenient to believe we can regulate and control the dangerous materials we introduce into the environment, but all too often, it turns out, we can’t.