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The other fossil fuel disaster

Hal Sundin
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
As I See It
ALL |

Lost in the media attention being given to the oil-well blowout catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and the mounting damage to the Gulf-coast shoreline, is an ongoing disaster equally destructive to people’s lives and to the environment – and that is coal. Most everyone is enraged about the accident in the Gulf (which could and should have been avoided if proper drilling procedures had been followed), but evidently consider the damages from coal acceptable.

It has long been known that burning coal produces more carbon dioxide per pound than burning either petroleum, or especially natural gas. But it doesn’t stop there. The burning of coal also results in the discharge of nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid, arsenic, mercury and lead into the atmosphere in sufficient quantities to be a serious concern.

But in the areas where coal is produced and processed, the effects on people and damages to the environment are truly catastrophic because of the way the industry operates. The most highly visible example is in the Appalachian Mountains where a process referred to as “mountaintop removal mining” has become commonplace. Mountaintop removal involves stripping the entire tops off mountains to get at the coal underneath, and pushing the spoil into the adjoining valleys, which are the headwaters of the streams that feed the region’s rivers. The result is indescribable devastation – you have to see it to believe it. And this is no accident – this is standard practice, and has been going on for decades without any government interference, as a result of categorical exemptions from environmental regulations granted to the industry.



The result has been the devastation of mountain streams and rapid runoff from the land stripped of vegetation, causing severe erosion, flood damage, destruction of the land and massive fish kills. Processing the coal produces serious dangers to the health and safety of the people living near the mines. Coal dust isn’t a hazard to the lungs of only the miners; it is in the air everyone in coal country breathes, in concentrations that blanket everything with coal dust – reminiscent of the Dust Bowl conditions on the plains in the mid-1930s. It is so bad in some valleys that nearly all the grade-school children carry asthma inhalers. Overflows from and dam failures of toxic coal-sludge pits have occurred, wiping out houses and endangering people’s lives.

And wherever coal is burned, pits containing toxic coal-ash pose a similar hazard to the people, property, and streams and rivers downvalley from the pits. Less than two years ago, the earthen retaining wall of a storage pond at a power plant in Tennessee ruptured, releasing more than five million cubic yards of toxin-laden coal-ash sludge, polluting water courses and burying roads, rail lines and 300 acres of land.



The big difference between the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the disastrous effects of coal is that the oil spill was an accident, whereas most of the damage from coal is inherent in it current methods of production and disposal of the residue from burning it. The effects of the mining, processing and burning of coal are more widespread and present a greater hazard to people’s lives and the environment than the Gulf oil spill, but by being more widespread (and long ignored) have not received the media attention and resulting public awareness as the oil spill has. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve our attention.

The coal industry is touting “clean coal” as the energy of the future – clean coal being obtained by sequestering the carbon dioxide produced from burning the coal. To me, “clean coal” is an oxymoron unless the industry can come up with a technically and economically feasible way of sequestering the billions of tons of CO2 produced every year from the burning of coal. In the meantime, the coal industry, in cooperation with the coal-burning power industry, should be addressing its current abuses by discontinuing the destructive practice of mining by mountaintop removal, greatly improving containment of coal dust and toxic minerals to keep them out of the air we all breathe and the public water supplies that millions of people depend on, and making sure that coal-slurry and coal-ash pits are constructed so they will not fail, and have barriers that will insure that they are protected from breaching by floods.

An article in the Spring, 2010 issue of the Earthjustice publication, In Brief, states that “A growing body of scientific evidence shows that coal pollution is devastating communities, harming and sickening people, and destroying the ecosystems and natural resources of our country,” and “Coal ash is a hazardous material, a waste that needs to be regulated, and though we can’t stop producing coal-fired energy overnight, we cannot afford to have a community or the environment devastated the way we are.”

– Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post independent


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