Wean Ourselves from the Coal Habit


Phase 2 of the New Economy is on its way. It's nothing new, really, just a rehash of environmental and energy principles that have held true for decades. Renewables, efficiency and conservation are at its center.

Phase 2 is not an altruistic concept. Indeed, I come to this position from a very pragmatic position. I happen to live smack in the middle of more than 15,000 megawatts of old, dirty, coal-fired plants, some in Indiana, some in Kentucky and some in Illinois. I have witnessed the fouled air and water, dirty communities and ill health these plants create.

I used to support coal since it was so dominant in my regional economy and I was once a big fan of scrubbers. I endorsed the concept of "clean coal." Now I feel "clean coal" is an oxymoron. Coal has always been our easy fix -- we have lots of it and tradition allows its use.

But tradition is poor counsel in looking at coal.

If it was just burning it, perhaps we could find the proper mix of "controls" to keep air emissions relatively low. Precipitators and scrubbers seem to do their job. Hopefully, SCR and other NOX controls will as well. Of course, mercury and climate change remain uncontrolled.

We spend billions of dollars to clean up coal, using controls so costly they will virtually assure continued operation of these plants, perhaps for as many as 30 years. What politician will authorize the forfeiture of so much capital regardless of the harm it can cause?

But combustion is only part of the environmental hell coal creates. Combustion is only the middle of the coal cycle. It must also be mined and its waste disposed.

Recently, attending a three-state coal conference, one coal company rep said, "All the easy coal is gone." His admission sent chills down my spine. If the easy-to-get coal has already been mined, knowing the environmental destruction it has caused, what lies ahead could spell real disaster. Actually, it already has. Mountains are being removed and slurry ponds have failed. This past summer's tragedy in Inez, Ky., is only the most notable disaster brought by "king coal."

More catastrophes will occur with increasing frequency. As we reduce stripping in favor of underground mining, we will see more mine disasters and black lung disease. Problems don't stop at the mine property, however. Have you ever seen a coal town? The scores I have visited are filthy with coal dust and their roads and streets are pocked from overweight trucks.

Living in a coal town carries a social cost paid by all its residents. but the economics, small though they be, accrue only to miners who pay a health price and the owners of the coal who usually don't reside in the coal towns, opting, instead, for opulent urban estates.

At the end of the cycle, we are forced to dispose of mining and combustion waste. A couple of decades ago we allowed most waste to go up the stack. Particulates, Sulfur (SO2, SO4, H2SO4), NOX, Mercury, Beryllium, Arsenic, CO, CO2, and Radon were emitted freely.

Then we succeeded in passing the Clean Air Acts in 1970 and 1977. The air started to clear. Precipitators were first. That took away most of the visible emissions, lulling us into a comfort zone--out of sight, out of mind. Luckily, informed people were not fooled and finally in 1990, we passed a new Clean Air Act designed to improve sulfur emissions, acid rain and ozone levels.

The Clean Air Act has worked for the pollutants it has addressed. Our air is cleaner and we should be proud. But there is a downside. What we took out of the air created an unruly waste stream. Some combustion and mine wastes can be reused in progressive ways. Lots of potential exists in building materials. But, far too much is toxic sludge with no easy means of safe disposal.

With a pH as high as 12, coal combustion waste has no national standards for disposal. Often, it is dumped in unlined mine pits, in direct contact with ground water and above the deep fissures left from blasting. Drinking water contamination is common around these pits.

EPA is currently gathering information, a process they have been doing for a number of years already, in an effort to come up with some sort of national strategy to deal with power plant sludge. It is anybody's guess when and what EPA will do.

It is the sum of these issues that caused me to forsake coal as an energy source. We simply cannot afford the social, health, climate and pollution cost coal requires.

That brings me to Phase 2 of the New Economy. We know that in Phase 1, we created tools, though requiring electricity, used it in fairly efficient ways. Computers are probably the best use of electricity we share.

Phase 2 will be the development of technology that will create a conservation and efficiency ethic. New forms of energy "generation" will also be an inherent part of Phase 2. And, just like the instant wealth created by Phase 1, commensurate economic opportunity will arise from Phase 2.

Our potential for sustainable development will require new forms of energy, efficiency and a conservation ethic. Casting away traditional means of generation in favor of Phase 2 techniques will mean huge economic benefits and a substantially cleaner environment. Surely, smart venture capitalists and businessmen will recognize the folly of tradition and opt for a leaner and cleaner method of operation.

Many technologies already exist and it is just a matter of time before they are embraced widely across the globe. Solar electricity and heat, wind, some forms of biomass will be common in the New Economy. Coal will be a thing of the past. Our grandkids will wonder why it took us so long to break away. Breaking the Coal Paradigm will free us to think outside the box. Depending on coal will force an unnecessary delay in our progress.

Just because coal is there does not mean we must burn it. Spending billions in a feeble attempt to concentrate its pollution is not the answer. Phasing it out, starting today, will be our environmental and energy salvation. Phase 2 must be our mantra.

I appeal to those who read this to join me in setting an affirmative agenda to immediately phase out the use of coal in the US and eventually the world. Compromising on controls today will seriously impede development of the real New Economy.

John Blair is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and president of Valley Watch, Inc. based in Evansville, Ind. He can be reached at ecoserve1@aol.com

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2001 The Progressive Populist