No such thing


1999, Nauvoo, Alabama – I’m hiking through the 1100-acre woods at the Camp McDowell environmental center. We had hiked over a river, up hills, around countless waterfalls, and a green diversity I’ve never seen before. Suddenly, rounding a rock formation, we saw light ahead; the woods seemed to simply stop, as if the earth had been scooped away just yards ahead of us. Our guide brought us to the border of the camp’s protected property – where the vegetation and soil completely faded away within a few meters – and explained strip mining.

It’s been a decade since I saw those scarred, treeless hills against the beauty of forest where I stood, and the massive “clean” coal industry – the dirtiest, most polluting form of American energy – has yet to evolve into an environmentally conscientious platform. The industrial process begins with salvaging the natural resource itself.

The most common form of mining is surface mining, which starts with completely clearing acres of strips of natural land to expose the coal-rich rock below; the removed earth and waste is dumped elsewhere, causing severe runoff problems. The rock bed is drilled into to place explosives; once these explosives break up the rock, the mining may begin. Massive machinery scoops the rock aside, collecting and processing the coal. Once all the coal in one strip is mined, all the waste dumped from before refills some of the resulting canyon, and the process may restart on a strip next to the old one. This form of mining is the most directly devastative process of producing energy, converting acres of land into a nutrientless hill incapable of sustaining life, utterly robbing the land of nutrients that had hosted the natural ecosystem. The rest of the mining takes place underground: one of the most hazardous working conditions, causing irrevocable maiming and disease to miners.

Once the coal is mined and processed on-site, it is transported to the power plant. The cost of transportation alone can cost more than the mining process; however, most coal (about 68%) is transported via train – essentially the greenest way of transportation. The cheaper option is via barges, which is comparably environmentally-safe. This is as clean as the process gets.

Not all the coal is used at once, rather most of it is typically stored in uncovered piles, leaving it vulnerable to rain (runoff contaminates land and water sources) and wind (dust irritates the lungs and settles on houses and land).

At the power plant, the dirtiest step in the process – I mean, the “cleanest” part – begins. First, the coal is washed and crushed for burning. The main energy conversion process is the typical steam engine: water from a nearby is heated by the burning coal, and the steam turns the turbine to generate electricity. A typical coal plant requires 2.2 billion gallons per year, enough to support a city of 250,000 people; intake pipes in rivers, lakes, and oceans also suck up millions of fish and their eggs – the average production of an entire species in one year. As the coal burns, it releases flue gas – a conglomeration of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other particulates – untreated, it causes acid rain, lung aggravation in asthmatics, and respiratory diseases. Different systems called “scrubbers” on the gas’ exit route remove nearly all sulfur dioxide (causes acid rain) and particulates from the flue gas; the resulting waste is used to make drywall. The waste from the burned coal itself – collected as pellets, ash, and sludge – is the most harmful byproduct because it has few uses and disposal options. The majority of coal waste is landfilled or dumped in retaining ponds. In the U.S., about 30% of all waste ash is stored in about 300 ponds. These ponds can leak during processing and storage; in December 2008, a TVA coal plant’s waste pond spilled, covering two rivers and about 300 acres of land with 6 feet of sludge. The waste from a coal power plant is up to 100 times more radioactive than nuclear power plant waste.

Some coal waste is used in synthesis of other commercial products or alone (ice control, gravel replacement, fill for embankments). The concrete industry includes some of the ash in production to make concrete stronger and less porous. California plans to produce their concrete with up to 35% of coal ash products, thus reducing the greenhouse gas impact of the pollutant concrete industry.

If coal supplies more than half of all consumed electricity in the U.S., then there is no reason why it should not be the most developed resource as well – especially in this country so touted for its progressivism. Of the 131 million tons of coal waste produced annually, only 43% is recycled (the rest is dumped); essentially, there is certainly no “clean” about coal.

The ‘clean’ coal movement goes as far back as the 1970s. If the extremely expensive ‘clean’ coal technology has yet to produce any significantly ‘clean’ power plants in the last 30 years, then how can we expect any truly clean technology that could rival wind power in the next 20 years? The Department of Energy expects wind power – the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. and the E.U. – to supply 20% of nation’s energy needs by 2030. Several states have actually made wind power more than just an alternative; New York recently hailed a milestone of 1000 MW – 5% of the state’s total energy need – of energy produced by wind power. Farmers and ranchers typically receive from project developers $2,000-5,000 per year for each turbine on their land. The land taken out of production for wind turbine pads, access roads, and ancillary equipment reduces income for corn farmers, for example, by about $165 per turbine. The 600 coal power plants in the U.S. require tens of acres of land and billions of gallons of water each for cooling, and it still produces 32% of U.S. carbon emissions. Clearly, the congestion and inefficiency will not detach themselves from the coal industry.

The “clean coal” campaign has existed for decades, yet there is not a single “clean” plant, not a dent in the overall environmental opinion of burning coal, and not a bit of evidence to suggest that will change. Put briefly, “clean coal’ is like a healthy cigarette,” said Blan Holman, attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center, “It doesn’t exist.”