Clean Coal’s Dirty Secret

It’s dark. You turn on a light. It’s cold. You turn on the heat. Need to cook dinner? Turn on the stove. Don’t want to miss your favorite show? Turn on the TV. Piles of laundry? Throw them in the washer and dryer. Can’t be late to work? Set your alarm. Have to stay connected? Charge your phone and your laptop.

Power. It’s become so central to every way we solve problems that we don’t even recognize that we’re using it until it goes out. In fact, electricity is so magically simple that it’s easy to mistakenly assume that the seemingly clean electricity that enters our home is just that–clean.

Years ago, before electricity was commonplace, many homes were heated by a coal burning fireplace. The soot and smog that hung over cities was a constant reminder of the environmental and health costs associated with power generation. One of the great marketing decisions of the coal industry was to place coal fired power plants out of view so that consumers wouldn’t see the true environmental cost of their power purchases; keeping U.S. in the dark, so to speak.

Today there’s a lot of discussion about clean coal. Most of the focus is on the new scrubbers that reduce sulfur dioxide, which is a harmful pollutant. But reduction doesn’t eliminate the problem; it simply reduces it. Also, scrubbers don’t reduce nitrogen oxides or carbon dioxide emissions at all. And any environmental gains made by scrubbers are all but erased by the fact that every day more energy is being used and more coal is being burned.

Clean coal advocates focus on these scrubbers as the solution to making coal more environmentally friendly, but to really evaluate coal from an environmental standpoint, one must account for the entire process, not just one step in it.

Getting the Coal
If the Middle East is the land of oil, the U.S. is the land of coal. Home to 23 percent of the world’s coal, the U.S. is able to meet a significant portion of its energy needs by using what many consider to be a national resource. Most coal comes from either the Appalachian or the Rocky Mountain coal fields. There are three ways to remove coal from the Earth; strip mining, mountaintop removal and underground mining.

Strip Mining
When coal seams are near the surface, like they are in Wyoming’s Power River Basin and some parts of Appalachia, they can be strip mined. In strip mining, a large dragline swings back and forth moving dirt from one place to another, exposing the coal seams. The result is millions of acres of bleak, desolate land that is typically abandoned afterward.

Mountaintop Removal
Common in the Appalachian mountains, mountaintop removal is the most controversial method of extraction because it completely transforms the topography of an area by removing up to 1,000 vertical feet of a mountain in order to extract the coal. The process of mountaintop removal takes a mature forested mountain, clear cuts or burns the land and then sets explosives to obliterate the mountaintop so that the underlying coal is exposed and can be easily mined. Although federal law states that most mountaintop removal sites must be restored to their pre-mining contour and use (a tall order), regulatory agencies generally issue a waiver to allow the site to be lightly contoured and left.

While a mountain is being destroyed, the dirt and rocks that have no value must be moved out of the way. Much of this “fill” is dumped into neighboring valleys and streams. Between 1985 and 2001, 6,700 valley fills were approved resulting in the destruction of thousands of miles of streams that once fed rivers. This process not only destroys and alters ecosystems, it also compromises the water quality in the area. Additionally, it diverts water into new channels, endangering families by creating flooding on land where homes were safely built years ago.

Underground Mining
When coal is far enough below the surface to make strip mining or mountaintop removal impossible, underground mines are cut to reach the seams. Underground mining is easily the most dangerous of all extraction methods not only because of mine related accidents, but also because of the increased risk of lung related diseases. By the time the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, 100,000 coal miners had been killed in the United States since 1900.

Washing the Coal
Before coal can be used as a fuel, the noncombustible materials must be washed away. A mixture of water and chemicals is used to wash the coal. What’s left is a slurry that contains many heavy metals including arsenic, lead and selenium, none of which you want in your drinking water. How many tons of coal slurry are disposed of annually in the U.S. is unknown.

Where is this slurry deposited? Typically it’s dumped into coal slurry retention ponds or injected into abandoned mines. Retention ponds are lined, but anyone who’s tried to build even a small pond knows how difficult it is to avoid leaks. With slurry injection into abandoned mines, even this small precaution is skipped allowing the toxins and heavy metals in the slurry to seep into the groundwater. In the case of Appalachia, this process is polluting one of the world’s most pristine water sources.

Slow, seeping, cancer causing, heavy metal contamination isn’t the only threat from slurry ponds. On February 26, 1972, a slurry pond dam in West Virginia broke after several days of heavy rain. A federal mine inspector had declared the dam satisfactory just days before. 132 million gallons of toxic coal slurry created a 30-foot-high wall of waste water that flooded Buffalo Creek Hollow killing 125 people, injuring 1,121 and leaving 4,000 homeless. It also polluted thousands of miles of rivers and streams. As a comparison, the Exxon Valdez dumped 10.8 million gallons of oil, or less than one tenth of the volume of the slurry flood in West Virginia.

Even more frightening are the three billion gallons of coal slurry stored in a pond that is held back by a 385 foot high Earthen dam in Rock Creek, West Virginia. The Marsh Fork Elementary school sits just below this dam. The school’s closest neighbor is a Massey Energy processing plant where coal is washed and stored. Every day, between 15 and 20 children must go home early due to asthma problems, nausea, severe headaches and blisters in their mouths. As bad as this already is, if this dam fails, the school below will be obliterated.

Transporting and Burning the Coal
In 2007, the U.S. mined and transported 1.145 billion tons of coal. All of this coal was transported either by train, barge or truck to coal plants around the country creating more pollution and requiring the use of more oil and gasoline, 70 percent of which is imported from other countries.

Once it reaches a power plant, the coal is pulverized, mixed with air, and burned to heat water, creating steam. This steam powers a turbine, which powers a generator, which turns mechanical energy into electric energy. It is only at this point that people start to talk about “clean coal.” Specifically, about the scrubbers that remove the sulfur dioxide, which is just one of the many pollutants associated with burning coal.

The other pollutants associated with coal burning are carbon dioxide, small airborne particles, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium.

The Verdict on Clean Coal
Scrubbers are a start, and a plant with scrubbers is certainly preferable to one without them. But when you look at the pollutants, environmental degradation and health hazards associated with every phase of coal from extraction and washing to transportation and burning, there isn’t any way to describe it as clean. The more accurate description would instead be “Not quite as dirty coal” but that concept wouldn’t be nearly as easy to sell.

Burning coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming, and air toxics. In an average year, a typical coal plant generates:
3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary human cause of global warming-as much carbon dioxide as cutting down 161 million trees.
10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain that damages forests, lakes, and buildings, and forms small airborne particles that can penetrate deep into lungs.
500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death, as well as haze obstructing visibility.
10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), as much as would be emitted by half a million late-model cars. NOx leads to formation of ozone (smog) which inflames the lungs, burning through lung tissue making people more susceptible to respiratory illness.
720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), which causes headaches and place additional stress on people with heart disease.
220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
170 pounds of mercury, where just 1/70th of a teaspoon deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.
225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists.

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By Kelly Magill, Positively Green magazine


Jordan G.
Jordan G2 years ago

Wow, thanks.

Jan Caine
j C7 years ago

A very informative article. Thank-you! I knew clean coal wasn't all that clean, but I didn't realize how contaminating and dangerous the process is of producing coal.

Clearly the issue of energy resources is a complicated one. Hopefully we will soon put to work a number of ways that don't destroy the earth.

Meanwhile, adjust those thermostats and walk or bike when you can!

Mari Basque
Mari 's7 years ago

A Plea to President Obama

End Mountaintop Coal Mining

By Dr James Hansen

Mari Basque
Mari 's7 years ago

Stop Facebook from Switching to Dirty Coal

Targeting: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) and Jonathan Heiliger (Facebook VP of Technical Operations)
Started by:

Facebook has just announced that it is building its own gigantic data center in Oregon. For the first time Facebook will have its own facility but unlike Google or Microsoft, which both built data centers in the same area running off hydroelectric power, Facebook’s facility will be powered by dirty coal.

Data centers use huge amounts of electricity and the new Facebook center will get its power from a coal-fired power plant in Idaho.

Coal is the single biggest cause of global warming and by far the dirtiest and most polluting way to generate electricity. Facebook should be choosing renewable or at least less destructive sources for its huge energy needs.

Sign this petition and send Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg an email directly asking him to keep Facebook off coal.

Adam Rack
Adam R8 years ago

and adding a tiny bit more pollution to the American soil than paying more simply to pour toxic substances into the air and soil in huge amounts on the other side of the world. Giving both sides their own respective fuels would allow the entire earth to end up cleaner and save time and expensive materials in the process. Recently, in my home state of Kansas, the largest dispute for quite some time was over the construction of two new "clean coal" plants near Holcomb (near Garden City in southwest Kansas if that helps). These plants would not only have been two of the cleanest coal plants ever built, but new research facilities in biofuels and alternative energy would have come with them. The two plants would have used nearly all the remaining heat and co2 in the creation of biodiesel through algae. A new technology much cleaner and more efficient than the use of our food resources seen today. It is very sustainable. The EPA and our state government did not seem to take any of this into account in their consideration of building permits. At the same time, political leaders across the country pressured our governor to deny permits. An example: the governor of Michigan wrote a letter about how appalling it would be to allow the construction of these plants while at the same time, construction of three new plants at more than triple capacity of the entire Holcomb complex were just approved. None of which had any clean coal credibility. Coal truly can be a very clean resource.

Adam Rack
Adam R8 years ago

This story bashes coal a little beyond the point it should be. Yes I agree it is dirty in many ways, but don't forget what a necessity it is. I do not approve of regular coal power plants and for that matter most "clean coal" plants. Lets take a look at our alternatives... solar and wind, both very useful supplements, but still expensive and at times unreliable. Geothermal may work on a home basis, but in the majority of America a geothermal power grid would be preposterous. Nuclear - by far the most controversial, along with the most dangerous waste products. And the new craze, Natural Gas, when put into all accounts is far more expensive and creates co2 as well. Although we have natural gas in the midwest, our supplies will never last over 200 years, as the coal supply is expected to last. Currently we ship coal produced in the north central united states to China and other parts of Asia. In return we are purchasing natural gas from Russia and other parts of Asia. Both of these materials make their individual trips on specialized tankers to the country by which they were purchased (using much more fuel than trains themselves not to mention added distance). We happily burn this [expensive] natural gas in the cleanest way possible. During all this time, China is burning the coal with little to no restrictions AT ALL on pollution. In my mind, and in a global environmental prospective, I would much rather be saving the fuel and costs of shipping these fuels *next comment*