Sunday, January 25, 2009

Old King Coal

by Mort Malkin

Old King Coal

Coal has given us energy from the under-world since the Industrial Revolution. No wonder civilization didn’t use coal for the first 4,700 years since the invention of writing at 3,000 BCE. They wouldn’t even use graphite pencils for their cuneiform when they invented writing. Coal, as the Sumerians knew, was the stuff of the Devil. You want light, use olive oil. You need heat, burn wood.

Yes, coal can make heat and light, but it has far more disadvantages than redeeming features. First, the good news. Burning coal releases less methane than raising cattle. That’s it for the good news. The bad news, however, is world class in quality and quantity.

Coal fired plants make, in addition to electricity, SO2 and NOx which cause acid rain wherever the prevailing winds send the emissions. The coal plants of the Midwest send their acid smoke to the Adirondacks and New England, even to Republican Maine. While they are at it, coal plants offer mercury, arsenic, selenium, thorium, and uranium. You say acid rain kills all life in lakes and streams so we can’t catch any mercury tainted fish? Well, you know Murphy’s Law. It seems we humans have already been toxified from the mercury laden spewings of the coal plants.

More bad news. The process of mining, transporting, cooling, and ash disposal requires water in aquifer quantities, even more than Big Beef uses. In the Southwest at Black Mesa Arizona, Peabody Coal is mining on Hopi and Navajo lands. Billions of gallons of water are taken from the underlying aquifer to create a slurry pipeline, a new invention by Bechtel Inc, the devil’s apprentice. The coal, in fact may be less valuable than the water. Don’t accuse the coal companies of racism, they will even take the white man’s water. In Great Falls Montana, the proposed coal fired plant is well on its way with the permitting process. Recently, a ray of hope appeared. An environmentally sensitive official raised an eyebrow over the plan to take many millions of gallons of water from the Missouri River. Another eyebrow went up over the threat to the Lewis & Clark Historical Site that was so inconveniently located. Maybe history will win out.

Coal mining goes back in my memory to John L Lewis of the bushy eyebrows and outspokenness, and to the UMW in the first half of the 20th century. In those days mining was simply digging mine shafts & tunnels and bringing in men with pick axes and canaries. Black lung disease was endemic in Appalachia. But, some twenty years ago such memorable companies as Peabody, Arch Coal, and Alpha Natural Resources — do gooders all — figured out that they could eliminate black lung disease by the technique of mountain top removal. Just dynamite the mountain, and take out the coal with mondo bulldozers. It is rumored that a few mucky mucks in the companies, upon hearing that nuclear energy leaves no carbon footprint, proposed to use small nuclear bombs to detach the mountain tops. But, their atoms-for-peace plan was killed off by a pair of reporters who heard about it and went radioactive, reporting it on a blog site. Then, a question arose from the depths: what to do with the mountain tops after blasting them off. Somehow, the peaks didn’t vaporize. The answer was found in the valleys and streams between the mountains, just the right sized space. How convenient.

Of course, coal fired plants also produce lots of CO2, the prime greenhouse gas that creates global heating and climate chaos. The whoo-ha about “clean” coal was promoted by the President early in 2001 by offering $2 billion for R&D. The delusion increased over the years, and by 2007 “clean” coal made it into his State of the Union speech. In 2008, Barack Obama said “Me too.” Until then, many thought the now President Obama was smarter, or more honest, than that. In the hypothetical “clean” coal model, the CO2 produced is removed and buried and the other toxic pollutants are removed by scrubbers. The coal fired plants may not yet have developed the CO2 sequestration techniques, but they know how to install scrubbers. They are proceeding with them with all deliberate haste, having installed the technology in 134 of the more than 600 coal plants around the country since the 1990s. The accent in “with all deliberate haste” is on “deliberate.” In fact, many of the older plants, over 42 years old, have a “grandfather” exemption from modernizing with scrubbers. The designers of new coal fired plants are presently trying to figure out how to be grandfathered without Bush in the Oval Office.

Last, comes the question of what to do with what’s left after the coal is burned. When I was a kid in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, the apartment house on the block and a few other homes were heated by coal. The ashes were less ashes than clinkers. They were disposed of in ash cans separate from garbage cans. The same inconvenient ash must be produced by the coal fired plants. Coal ashes are useless as fertilizer or anything else. The power plants are as technologically advanced in doing away with coal ash as they are in converting coal from dirty to clean. What the coal plants have traditionally have done with the ash, and still do, is to grind it up, mix it with water (more water), and dig out a few acres of earth for sludge “ponds.” Last month, a dammed, 40 acre sludge pond in Tennessee gave way and flooded the town of Kingston City, near Knoxville. OK, at 40 acres, it was more of a lagoon, as potent as, if not better smelling than, a pig waste lagoon. The Tennessee sludge flood was picturesque enough to interest the media, followed quickly by a call to the Coast Guard as well as to the EPA. The local folks were in over their heads. Keep your eye on the 1300 other “containment” sites around the country.

If it’s not enough to leave the coal in the ground for all of the above reasons, why not leave it just because Nature intended it there? Maybe it is part of Nature’s grand design of turning coal into its purest form of carbon — diamonds.

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