Environmental effects of coal not as clean as advertised
By Brian Hotchkiss
Look north from Ithaca College’s campus and you’ll see a small puff of white rising on the horizon. Nestled in the rolling green hills that surround Cayuga Lake, the tall white cloud seamlessly blends in with the soft beauty of Tompkins County’s panoramic landscape. It’s the kind of innocent little cloud you might lie in a field of grass, stare up at and say how much it looks like a cotton ball, a fluffy pillow or a bunny rabbit.
Look a little closer and you’ll see it’s rising from a tall smokestack in nearby Lansing. The factory responsible for creating Mr. Cottontail is the AES Cayuga coal plant-also known as Milliken Station. For years the plant has touted their facility as “clean,” saying most of the floating whimsical wisps are just steam. A 1999 report by the New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) Company says scrubbers installed in the stacks and efforts to green the plant made Milliken “one of the top 20 most efficient steam electric generating stations operating in the United States.”
Look even closer, this time at a 2006 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxic release report, and you’ll see that “clean,” when it comes to coal, is a relative term. According to the report, in an average operating year, the smoke rising over Cayuga Lake hurls 2,310 pounds of ammonia, 16,517 pounds of sulfuric acid and 71,597 pounds of hydrochloric acid into the air-signature components in acid rain, eventually leading to ground water contamination. Suddenly, those feathery tufts aren’t quite as cute.
The reality is, no matter how loudly or proudly NYSEG, ASE or any other energy entity touts how environmentally friendly their plants are, “clean” coal is a myth. Milliken Station’s tactics to condense and limit air pollutants, cutting edge as they may be, are still far from leaving the small impact they project themselves to be leaving on the local ecology. Realistically, the technologies needed to produce coal energy that has limited or no harmful pollutants are at least a decade away from becoming widely used.
Kate Sheppard, Capitol Hill correspondent for the Seattle-based environmental Web site grist.org and former Buzzsaw editor, says coal can only be considered clean when burned in an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plant. In a complex series of filtering and refining processes, coal is manipulated into a form of synthetic gas, or syngas. When burned and used to generate energy with a steam turbine system, fewer impurities like mercury or sulfur dioxide are released into the air.
Even in a plant using IGCC technology, there are still too many emissions released for the federal government to recognize it as authentically “clean” coal. For all the pollutants not removed in the first purification cycle, there must be a functional carbon capture and storage (CCS) unit to collect and trap the remaining greenhouse gasses underground. While some CCS technologies have worked on a small scale, leading scientists believe that universal carbon sequestration is ten years from being affordable.
“The reality is that there’s not a single home or business in America today powered by clean coal,” says Brian Hardwick, spokesman for the Reality Coalition, a new organization created to debunk popular clean coal myths. “No matter how much [coal industry leaders] say it in their advertising, coal can’t truly be clean until the plants can capture the global warming pollution. With so much at stake, we can’t afford to hang our hats on an illusion.”
For all of the damage wreaked on the atmosphere from the burning of coal, there is just as much harm being exercised on the ground from the mining of coal. The most popular technique currently being used to extract coal is Mountaintop Removal (MTR). As its name suggests, industry miners literally explode entire hills and crags, pick out the pulverized coal from the rubble, then dispose of what’s left behind. Far cheaper and safer to industry workers than traditional mining techniques, MTR sites have increased rapidly in the Appalachian Mountain range over the past 25 years.
However cheaper the process may be, the environmental affects of MTR are staggering. In his Orion Magazine article, “Moving Mountains,” environmental writer Erik Reece describes the scene of “ecological violence” in West Virginia: Once majestic peaks marveled at by settlers are now flattened, fallow plateaus. Valleys once defined by thick forests and babbling streams are now treated as dumpsters for whatever can’t be shipped out as fuel. Children exposed to the airborne coal dust in playgrounds are dying of Blue Baby Syndrome while their parents are afraid of developing the cancers and organ failures that once plagued their shaft-mining fathers.
A recent graduate of West Virginia University, Alan Searles spent his entire collegiate career discussing MTR in a classroom setting. In the state’s northernmost city, Morgantown, he was removed from the mines’ visual impact on the landscape. After moving south to the state’s capital, Charleston, he found himself surrounded by the industry’s stronghold over the area.
“It was pretty unbelievable, actually seeing entire mountains cut out of the land,” Searles says. “Most people here are furious about it, but coal owners pretty much run the state, employ a lot of people. They try to justify it by building on top of the mines but it doesn’t really make up for all the destruction.”
Despite the protests of local citizens and the work of coalitions like iLoveMountains.org, little is being done to impede further MTR from entirely destroying the spine of the Appalachians. According to the Dec. 3 New York Times article titled “Coal Mining Debris Rule is Approved,” a recent decision by the White House Council on Environmental Quality will loosen restriction on where companies can dump wastes. A West Virginia based organization, The Friends of Coal, has stressed more sound environmental consciousness in the mining industry. Still, they refuse to support efforts to ban MTR and the environmental destruction their state faces.
In a statement recently released on their Web site, they reacted to criticisms of their stance on MTR: “Coal operators must greatly reduce the damage mountaintop removal strip mining does to West Virginia’s mountains, streams and coalfield communities. [Still, we] don’t want to abolish mountaintop removal…Mining is the major economic force in some southern counties.”
In the last eight months there has been a tremendous surge in popularity backing clean coal as a solution to America’s energy problem. Ignoring every myth that surrounds it, Capitol Hill politicians and the general population alike have rallied around it as a national savior and the environmentally-friendly dream fuel. President-elect, Barack Obama, has been an advocate of clean coal, stressing it as a key component in weaning ourselves off our foreign oil addiction and achieving his campaign goal of “eliminat[ing] our current imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years.” At the Democratic Convention in Kentucky in May, a mailer was even distributed stating: “Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky Coal.”
The key factor driving Obama and the public’s sudden love affair with clean coal is its connection to the promise of energy independence. With the volatile Middle East erupting with anti-American sentiments and the threat of a nuclear arms race between unstable nations, there is a popular sense that America needs to cut its oil ties and pipelines to foreign nations. If we can utilize our own resources, we will rid ourselves of any connection to war-torn areas of the world.
Tompkins County environmental activist and Ithaca College history professor, Michael Smith, sees a fatal, misguided flaw with our quest for freedom from foreign oil. “In the framing of the argument for energy independence, there’s the notion that we don’t have to accept limits,” says Smith. “Conservationism is lost. It says something very deep about the American myth that we can’t be brought down… we think we are limitless.”
The pursuit of energy independence, through the promise of technological breakthroughs in clean coal, Smith fears, is one that will lead nowhere. The denial of the tragedies tied to our pursuit of energy independence and infatuation with clean coal will only further darken our nation’s energy situation. With no real attention being paid to fuel conservation and mere peripheral investments in alternative fuels outside of corn subsidies, Americans will have to rely on unethical mining practices that are destroying ecosystems and lives in West Virginia and other Appalachian states.
Still, despite the myths perpetuated around clean coal, Smith remains hopeful for the future of American energy policy.
“If we are willing to make sacrifices, and we are willing to look at our situation objectively,” says Smith. “America has a history of producing dramatic and necessary change through crisis. Only if we are willing, can we make the changes we need to be both environmentally sustainable and energy independent.”
Brian Hotchkiss is a senior writing major. E-mail him at email@example.com.