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No Such Thing as Clean Coal

Shawn Dell Joyce

We are enduring a $45 million advertising campaign touting "clean coal" as the solution to America's energy crisis. This is an attempt by "Big Coal" lobbyists (the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in this case) to "greenwash" Americans into believing a lie that coal can be clean. Don't believe the hype!

Most of our coal is extracted through mountaintop removal mining, which involves clear-cutting the forests and scraping away the topsoil, blasting up to 800 feet off the tops of mountains and gouging out the coal with gigantic earth-moving machines. This mechanized process replaces human miners with technology and causes millions of tons of "overburden" (mountaintops, trees and topsoil) to be bulldozed into adjacent narrow valleys, clogging streams. Just obtaining the coal is a dirty, polluting process.

Coal is a major contributor to climate change. Burning coal puts 80 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning gas, according to Greenpeace. Burning coal also spews pollutants — such as mercury, which is highly toxic and poses a "global environmental threat to humans and wildlife," according to the United Nations. Coal-fired power and heat production are the largest source of atmospheric mercury emissions. There are no commercially available "clean coal" technologies to prevent mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Even with improved filters on coal plants, which help capture some of the sulfur dioxide and mercury, the toxic waste that remains behind is a dirty problem. Coal ash is a solid byproduct of burned coal. It contains significant levels of carcinogens and arsenic, which could contaminate drinking water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is hazardous waste, and it should be classified as such," says Thomas Burke, an environmental risk expert at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the health effects of coal ash. Yet it isn't classified as hazardous waste, and through strong-arming by the coal industry, it remains largely unregulated.

Last December, 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash burst through a dike next to the Kingston coal plant in the Tennessee Valley and coated several hundred acres of land and nearby houses.

The coal slurry polluted the waterways of Harriman, Tenn., leaving it a ghost town with high levels of toxins, such as arsenic and mercury.

The coal industry's main strength and selling point is that coal is cheaper than renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, but many of the costs of burning coal are hidden or externalized. These are costs that we will pay as individuals — asthma in young children, for example — from the air pollution caused by burning coal. Climate change is another externalized cost of burning coal that is difficult to quantify. How much does the loss of a mountaintop or Appalachian culture and community cost?

The coal industry estimates that cleaning up fly ash would cost as much as $5 billion a year. If every coal-fired plant in the U.S. added carbon capture and sequestration technology or implemented other (unproven) "clean coal" technologies, that figure easily could double. We would pay that price through higher energy costs.

Coincidentally, the EPA released a study last week claiming that it would cost Americans $22 billion, or roughly $100 per family each year, to meet the goals of the climate bill currently being debated in the Senate. We will pay either way. The big question is what we will get for our money, a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy or a temporary bandage solution courtesy of Big Coal? Here's what you can do:

—Write letters to the editors of newspapers and expose the myth of clean coal.
—Cut your electricity consumption; most electric providers get half their power from coal.
—Support renewable energy by purchasing wind energy through your utility. In some areas, it only would cost $7 more per 300 kilowatt-hours to get all of your energy from wind instead of polluting sources. You can sign up at or call your utility.
—Go solar, and feed your excess energy back into the national grid!

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Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y.

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