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.
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.
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.
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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