Friday, February 14, 2014

Coal Having a Good Year/Bad Year

With natural gas prices spiking during this icy winter, one would think coal producers would be dancing a fancy jig. Coal is taking natural gas's role from the past few years of being the low cost replacement.  Coal consumption in power generation should be its highest in three years if the current trend continues, which should help lower gas prices as well.  But at the same time, the industry is taking a beating on the environmental side, specifically from three recent major spills into eastern U.S. waterways.  Interestingly, the three recent spills involve three different coal-related substances (a processing chemical, coal slurry from a treatment plant and coal ash), which highlights the enormous environmental risks associated with mining and burning coal.

The latest bad news came Tuesday Feb. 11 when approximately 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilled into Fields Creek in Kanawha County, WV and blackened the waterway.  The spill emanated from a Patriot Coal processing facility and was caused by a broken valve.  The backup notification system failed and the pump continued to pump slurry for several hours until it over-topped a secondary containment wall.  Yet another West Virginia waterway ruined by coal.

We all remember the spill of MCHM at Freedom Industries in early January that contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water in the Charleston, WV area for weeks.  Apparently there was a subsequent spill from the same facility that went largely unnoticed.  And we've lost count of the number of creeks that have been smothered by debris from "mountain top removal" mining.

More recently, 82,000 tons of coal ash slurry escaped from a retired Duke Energy coal plant into the Dan River at Eden, NC near the border of North Carolina and Virginia for a week beginning February 2.  Though not as big as the massive 1.1 billion gallon Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee in December 2008, it was still an environmental calamity that will take quite a while to clean up.

All of these events point to a product that is environmentally dangerous and an industry that is aging badly.  The more propaganda I hear about the purported "war on coal," the more I think there should actually be one.  Coal plants are being shut down across the country in favor of natural gas because coal is bad for the air, land and water, while shale gas has created a situation where natural gas supplies are stable and prices relatively low (this month notwithstanding).  Gas is not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than coal.  Until nuclear fusion is perfected, it is the best alternative to power our country.

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