by Christine Frank / December 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
Despite the massive quantities of greenhouses gases produced by coal-burning power plants and with total disregard for their effect on Earth’s climate, the Bush administration is pressing for more of these monstrosities to be built.
While the United States, the largest polluter on the planet, should be adopting 100 percent clean and renewable energy, government and industry are planning to take advantage of the vast coal reserves still underground. U.S. utility companies have unveiled a scheme to build 100 new coal plants over the next 10 to 15 years to replace old ones that must be phased
out. The Interior West alone is to get 26 of them.
Nearly all are expected to use the old, dirty technology of pulverized coal. The largest type
electricity generator will have a capacity of 1000 megawatts and cost $1 billion to build. Each will belch out six million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is enough to raise the concentrations to 10 times the preindustrial level, which was at 270 parts per million!
China has the largest coal reserves in the world, with 60-70 percent of its power being derived from it. Its burgeoning economy, along with that of India, is demanding ever more energy. China’s coal consumption outstrips the rest of the world and is projected to increase by 50 percent.
There is a perpetual yellow haze hanging over many North Chinese cities because of widespread use of coal-fired boilers, locomotives, and domestic stoves. And the pollution soon spreads beyond China’s borders—even to the United States.
Coal was originally plant debris that accumulated over millions of years in moist bogs, was then buried under sedimentary deposits, which compressed the peat into seams and subjected it to geothermal heat. This process transformed it into a fossil fuel. Although
the world has three centuries of this fuel left in the ground, there are many reasons for why it should remain there.
The many problems with coal extraction
Two major trends have boosted coal production: the mechanization of underground mining and the increase in surface extraction. Coal mining harms the land, surface water, groundwater, and even the air. In underground operations, waste materials are piled at
the surface creating runoff that both pollutes and alters the flow of local streams.
As rain percolates through the slag heaps, soluble components such as sulfates, calcium, carbonates and bicarbonates are dissolved, elevating total dissolved solids (TDS) in local bodies of water. The result is water so degraded that it is undrinkable and unusable by agriculture or industry.
Where coal seams contain abundant pyrite, acid drainage results. When that ore is exposed to water, it forms sulfuric acid and iron. The acidity dissolves metals like manganese, zinc and nickel, which are toxic to aquatic life. Some of these metals bioaccumulate in the freshwater food chain. Bottom-dwelling organisms can smother as iron settles out.
Sulfurous compounds such as hydrogen sulfate enter the water. Groundwater or streams carrying it are often colored by yellow-orange precipitates. During the early 1990s, acid drainage from hundreds of abandoned coal mines in Appalachia infiltrated more than 20,000
km. of streams, yellowing their waters, beds, and banks—and destroying the life in them.
The strip-mining of coal is the most injurious to the land and its watersheds. Entire Appalachian mountaintops are dynamited and shaved off like so much butter to get at the still plentiful soft coal veins below. Gargantuan draglines, bulldozers, and dump trucks remove the overburden and deposit it into the hollows—burying hamlets, filling in streams, and obliterating woodlands.
The devastation is like a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.” The machines operate 24-seven in four states, scarring a land area that will eventually exceed that of Delaware. They unearth 145 million tons a year, 15 percent of the nation’s total.
Many retired coal miners are residents of the hollows. Along with environmentalists, some have fought to stop the devastation of the countryside. They have challenged the coal companies’ right to destroy waterways and forests by arguing in court that it violates federal environmental laws—but to little avail.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is passing out permits to strip mine like candy at a Founders Day Parade, the Department of the Interior, which is staffed with appointees from the industry and their lobbyists, allows the horrors of mountaintop removal to continue despite the outcry against them.
Any human excavation in the planet’s crust at great depths can bring about seismic activity. This is true of gold-mining and rock-quarrying. Long-wall mining induces tremors not by blasting but by carving away coal along the length of a seam and allowing the overburden to collapse in areas that have already been mined. The collapse redistributes stress in the
overlying rock and coal, making it fracture or burst and giving rise to tremors.
The owners of the Trail Mountain Coal Mine in Utah plan to extend its shallow, underground operation into an area about half a mile from Joes Valley Dam and Reservoir. Seismologists have estimated that it could cause an earthquake as large as magnitude 3.9 around the dam, thereby loosing the dam’s grout curtain and creating a damaging slow leak.
Coal-mining-induced quakes are highly common in Utah. The biggest event was a magnitude 4.2 at the Willow Creek Mine, about 30 miles from Joes Valley Dam, which triggered dangerous rock falls that disrupted traffic on a highway and a rail line.
The preparation process carried out near the mines generates huge quantities of wastes—on the order of tens of millions of tons per year. Included are the solid wastes from the mines called “gob,” left over from coal washing and screening and the sludge from treating acid drainage. The land where the wastes are dumped is ruined.
Mine wastes have been used to construct dams around disposal lagoons to contain liquefied contaminants, but they are not nearly strong enough for the purpose. In 1971, a dam collapsed in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, causing a flood that claimed 125 lives and
resulted in millions in property damage. A similar accident occurred in 2000 when a 72-acre lagoon burst, releasing 250 million gallons of lava-like sludge that killed all the freshwater life in the Big Sandy River and its tributaries.
Trucks, railroads, slurry pipelines, and barges all transport coal, and they affect air and water quality either directly or indirectly. In addition to the pollution from the vehicles themselves, there are ambient air and health impacts from blowing coal dust. All stages of the operation—the mining, processing, and burning of coal—affect workers’ health. Inhalation
of dust containing crystalline silica during highwall drilling leads to black lung disease. Mercury vapors or dust containing mercury taken into the system cause neurological damage. At great depths, heat stroke and exhaustion can be a hazard for the miners, not to
mention cave-ins and gas explosions.
Air pollution from coal combustion
The greatest threat derived from the use of coal to the health of the planet and all life on it comes from its burning. The fuel contains many trace elements that are released during combustion. They end up in the atmosphere, local surface waters, and the land where waste residues are dumped.
The 900 million tons of coal that are consumed release toxic heavy metals such as nickel, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and cadmium in significant quantities. They cause many acute health problems, and chronic exposure to them over time is carcinogenic.
Dioxins and mercury, because of their chemical structure and the fact that they do not degrade, persist in the environment virtually forever. Dioxins function as dangerous hormone disruptors that can mimic enzymes in the endocrine gland system and interfere with the reproduction of many species at crucial stages of embryonic development. The fertility
of many species from frogs to humans is threatened.
Methylmercury bioaccumulatates and concentrates in the food chain, beginning with small aquatic organisms and fish and making its way into the larger predators and humans who consume them. Mercury blood levels are now alarmingly high in 10 percent of American women of childbearing age. This does not bode well for their offspring.
Exposure to pollutants from coal combustion induces asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and dramatic changes in lung function. Asthma is becoming epidemic in children living in urban areas. Breathing in particulate matter cuts short the lives of some 30,000 people in this country.
The nightmare of acid rain
In the 1950s, there were no pollution controls on household coal furnaces, industrial boilers, or locomotives still in use, which all released vast amounts of fly ash. Ironically, the alkalinity of the ash helped to reduce the acid effects of other emissions. Twenty years later, there were no more steam engines and home use of coal, and coke production was declining. Instead, power plants burned three-quarters of all coal consumed.
With the passage of air-quality standards, virtually all power plant boilers were forced to install electrostatic precipitators that captured nearly all of the fly ash generated. These controls had eliminated unsightly particulate pollution but had also stripped practically all alkaline and metallic oxides from flue gases.
With coal combustion becoming more efficient, nearly perfect oxidation of all the sulfur present was achieved, and the higher combustion temperatures also produced more nitrous oxides. Although the emissions became less visible, they became more deadly, containing hot mixtures of carbon dioxide and sulfur and nitrous oxides. The gases now reside longer in the atmosphere, where they produce more acidifying sulfates and nitrates.
The process was helped along by the construction of taller stacks, forcing the hotter gases almost to the mid-troposphere, enabling them to be carried on the prevailing winds. The increased use of air conditioning contributed to acidification by shifting the season of peak electric load from winter to summer, when there is a greater abundance of hydroxyl radicals to oxidize more sulfur compounds.
Coal-fired power plant emissions account for two-thirds of the nation’s sulfur dioxide and
one-third of the nitrous oxide. Acid rain results when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide mix with the moisture in the atmosphere. It can be carried and deposited far from the source.
The pollutants from the Ohio River basin, which has a huge concentration of coal-fired power plants, end up in New York, New England, Eastern Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean. The world first learned of acid rain when the Swedes discovered that their forests were dying off from German industrial pollution blowing northward.
There are two basic mechanisms of acid deposition. One is the leaching of alkaline cations
(positively-charged ions) from foliage and soils, which results in the micronutrient deprivation of trees. The other is the toxic release of aluminum from the soil, which damages fine roots and weakens their capacity to absorb water and nutrients.
Afflicted trees become more vulnerable to drought, the presence of ground-level ozone, and the accumulation of heavy metals. Each year they gain less wood. Fungi and bark beetles eventually invade to finish off a dying tree.
The acidification of our lakes and streams impacts freshwater wildlife. North American rivers now contain one and a half to two times as much sulfate as they did in pre-industrial times. Those in Europe carry three to four times as much.
The Adirondack Mountains in New York have been especially affected. Because the rocks in the area lack acid-buffering carbonate minerals, Lake Placid has become acidified to such an extent that it is completely devoid of phytoplankton and now appears perfectly clear all the way to the bottom.
A lack of phytoplankton, of course, drastically affects the food chain. Waters with a pH below 4.5 make it extremely difficult for acid-sensitive insects, crustaceans, gastropods, and fish to survive. This threatens the biodiversity of our ecosystems.
Enhanced by ultraviolet radiation, nitrogen oxides contribute to the increase in ground-level ozone, which affects pulmonary function in humans. Also, by interfering with the ability of plants to produce and store starches and proteins, tropospheric ozone makes vegetation more susceptible to disease, insect pests, and other pollutants—thus affecting food production.
The problem of air pollution has gone to such an extreme that U.S. national parks are now blanketed with a permanent haze. Visitors can no longer enjoy the scenic vistas they used to. What were once pristine wilderness areas are now plagued with poisonous ozone and acid rain.
Families taking their asthmatic children out for some “fresh mountain air” are actually putting them at risk. The giant sequoias of California are endangered by contaminants drifting from the industrial complex around San Francisco Bay.
A contribution to global warming
Coal provides 23 percent of the world’s energy. U.S. coal-fired power plants, numbering nearly 600, release about one billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, amounting to 18 percent of all greenhouse gases spewed forth in this country. Worldwide, coal burning accounts for 36 percent of the carbon emissions and is their single largest source. Last year, five billion tons of coal were burned, which emitted 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
Coal mining also releases methane, another powerful gas that contributes to global warming. The world’s mean surface temperature is on the rise, its ice masses are shrinking, the permafrost is melting, sea levels are rising, ocean waters are heating, violent storms such as Hurricane Katrina are increasing in frequency and intensity, and there are more droughts
and floods. This frightening reality makes a powerful argument to end use of all fossil fuels, especially coal, here and now.
Yet, there are those that insist that it can be burned cleanly, and the carbon it produces can be securely sequestered. How true is this?
Some claim that coal gasification can be clean. By heating it to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in a sealed chamber, adding steam, injecting a small amount of oxygen (not enough to combust it), the coal breaks down into its constituent building blocks.
The gases that emerge include carbon monoxide, hydrogen, sulfur and nitrogen compounds, plus trace elements such as mercury—as well commercially useful chemicals such as ammonia compounds used for fertilizers and phenol and naphtha, used as solvents. These are all chemicals that cause harm to the environment. The other outcome of the coal-gasification procedure is 200 million cubic feet per day of carbon dioxide (4 million tons/year),
hardly a small matter.
Those people who want to apply a techno-fix to every problem generated by capitalist industry advocate carbon capture and storage (CCS). One of the few existing coal-gasification plants is located in North Dakota and in this case burns lignite (the least mature form of coal, with 35 percent moisture content), which must first have the moisture removed before it is gasified.
After going through those two steps, the unwanted carbon dioxide is pressurized at 2000 pounds per square inch and piped to an oil field in Saskatchewan, Canada. There it is forced below ground in order to recover petroleum that is hard to get at. The carbon is supposed to remain one mile below the surface indefinitely.
It takes tremendous energy to compress the gas, which heats to very high levels and must then be cooled down, requiring even more energy. How efficient is that? Plus, the method of enhanced oil recovery using carbon dioxide, (which is becoming more common), only perpetuates the use of petroleum and creates more CO2 to be disgorged, thus sustaining a vicious circle.
Currently, CCS is used on a significant scale only by Norway beneath the North Sea. No one can guarantee that sequestered carbon, once injected, will stay put in its burial vaults, undisturbed or otherwise.
Earthquakes or geologic stresses could easily cause it to come back and haunt us. Studies to date have monitored injection sites for only a few years. Even very low rates of leakage could re-release enough CO2 to pose major problems within decades.
Nor is there any sound assurance that it will not contaminate aquifers. At best, it is only a temporary solution, and we need long-term ones in order to restore the health of the planet. The only sound answer is to wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether. As outlined above, there all too many problems with every aspect of coal extraction, transport, and use.
When the planet was first formed 4.5 billion years ago, there was a huge mass of toxins and radioactivity roiling at the surface. Gradually, geologic forces worked them down into the mantel, where radioactive elements such as uranium generate the heat that keeps the magma churning. With the advent of life, Earth’s atmosphere developed, and the surface of the planet further purified.
However, since the Industrial Revolution, capitalist production has been steadily dredging up toxic heavy metals from the depths, releasing them into Earth’s four matrixes—atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere—contaminating them and choking the life in them. It is time to end these dangerous practices.
We must adopt policies that assist Mother Nature in restoring her ecosystems back to a harmonious state. For that reason, we should oppose all attempts by the U.S. government to expand the use of coal as a substitute for oil, the production of which is about to enter serious decline. There is no need for the continued combustion of any fossil fuel. Renewable
technologies are fully developed and already in use.
The Carbon Barons are growing steadily richer from government handouts and by gouging consumers. The $4.9 billion proposed by the Bush administration for so-called “clean coal” development can be used instead to commission even more wind farms and solar parks and
to train coal miners to install them.
The American people must get out into the streets and demand clean energy. They have no choice if their children and grandchildren are to have a future. A National March on Washington for 2006 to Stop Global Warming is currently being discussed among activists
who want to build a movement to force the government and the corporations to take measures to mitigate climate change. This is an important first step in launching an ongoing, worldwide campaign around the crucial, life-and-death issue of climate change.