Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Feel Another Coal Rant Coming On

Coal is getting under my skin again. Two things in particular are bothering me: coal ash and the myth of “clean coal.”

In catching up on articles this past weekend, I read an article in Sierra magazine about the problems associated with the coal ash ponds created by the huge coal-fired electric plant in Colstrip, MT. As coal is burned, it leaves behind a certain amount of residue, but unlike the wood in our fireplace, coal ash is filled with dangerous heavy metals and toxins, including mercury. Some of the ash is turned into building materials, but much of it wastes away in holding ponds along with sludge from srubbers that remove a portion of the pollutants from the smokestacks. Unfortunately these ponds lead to even more pollution as the chemicals in the water both leech into the groundwater and evaporate into the air.

I also saw a piece in the New York Times about the difficulties in cleaning up the massive coal ash spill in Kingston, TN. This massive spill in 2008 made us all aware of the dangers of these holding ponds. Outside of the sheer magnitude of the cleanup (the article notes that the disaster spilled “5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash across 300 acres into the Emory River and an affluent shoreline community near Knoxville(,) enough ash to cover a square mile five feet deep.”), the cleanup crews are having trouble finding appropriate dumping grounds for the sediment. The spilled ash is horrible stuff, filled with heavy metals that can lead to cancer, and not many landfills can handle it, especially not in these massive volumes. The one landfill that does take the sludge, located in tiny Uniontown, AL, has received so much rain lately that it has to deal with 100,000 gallons of tainted water per day as a result. The cleanup contractors are looking across the southeast for sites to process the tainted water, including in my home state of Louisiana. That situation is not yet resolved.

It is hard for me to believe the environmental furor over hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a practice that has not created a single documented instance of groundwater contamination, when there are hundreds of these toxic retention ponds at coal plants all over the country, many of which are classified by the EPA as “high hazards” or disaster sites (see map below). I can certainly understand the desire to avoid other potential new hazards, but the outrage directed towards fracking, especially in the Northeast, would be much better spent preventing the spread of toxic pollution associated with coal-fired power plants.

Which brings me to the oxymoron of “clean coal.” It makes my head hurt to try to find two words that go less well together. That large scale carbon sequestration and storage (CSS) has not yet been demonstrated is fairly well known, but what happens if it is finally possible? The amount of carbon captured for storage from coal generating plants would be huge. We would quickly run out of places to store it. On top of that, coal plants would have to burn lots more coal just to power the CSS process. Talk about a win-win for the coal industry!

Even if the carbon problem could be solved, if only partially, we’d still have coal plants spewing other greenhouse gases and toxins and leaving behind thousands of tons of coal ash.

I’ve said it before: the coal industry is like the cigarette industry. It creates a profitable but toxic product. It invests as much in lobbyists and lawyers as the product itself. Its survival is based on stall tactics, but the longer it survives, the more people it poisons.

“Clean coal” is a fictional tool created by the coal lobby to further the industry’s existence. In truth, the only clean coal is that which is left in the ground. While the natural gas lobby has made some strides in Washington, the coal boys are still kicking. These days they have a new best friend in Warren Buffet, whose company, Berkshire Hathaway, acquired Burlington Northern Railway, the company that powers many of those miles long coal trains snaking across the west. When the bulk of your revenue comes from hauling coal, you want to keep the strip miners scraping and the electricity plants burning coal. It makes Burlington Northern’s “The cleaner road ahead” media campaign seem quite ironic:

As the advocacy battles heats up in D.C. this spring as energy policy is debated, we will hear no end about “clean coal” and just how wonderful coal is. My thoughts immediately will shift to toxic coal ash and emissions filled with CO2, mercury, SOx, NOx and the like. I sure hope policy makers share these same thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Good article. They'd rather listen to who's paying their campaign bills, than someone actually telling them the facts up in Washington

Robert Hutchinson said...

I agree. They lobbying system can very much skew the truth.

I also think the blame goes to we, the people. For whatever reason you choose, we have become scared of change. It has suddenly become fashionable in Washington to do nothing because the citizens are now unwilling to accept too much change. Dig in for self-preservation. Like the old saying goes, "nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM."