Bad Ol' King Coal
As the editors of the Christian Science Monitor remind us, the consequences of that dependence are deadly serious: "fatal mine accidents, while serious, are not the major damage from coal usage. Pollution is considered coal's biggest killer, not to mention its likely contribution to global warming from carbon dioxide emissions."
Coal's boosters like to talk about the resource as cheap and plentiful. They call America the "Saudi Arabia of coal." In an op/ed piece in the Houston Chronicle, Jeff Goodell, author of the upcoming book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future runs down some of coal's darker aspects:
The American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution. In Appalachia, mountaintop removal mining — a method of mining in which the mountain is removed from the coal, rather than the coal removed from the mountain — has flattened some 380,000 acres in the region and destroyed more than 700 miles of streams.But the troubling fact is that demand for coal is rising, and sharply. Meanwhile, we are still trying to get a handle on another of the coal's demons -- namely, mercury emissions.
Coal plants generate more than 130 million tons a year of combustion waste — fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge — that is laced with toxic metals like arsenic and mercury and pumped into holding ponds and abandoned mines, where it can sometimes leak into aquifers and drinking water.
Most important, coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the United States, meaning that if we're going to get a handle on global warming, we'll have to get a handle on coal.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can work it's way up the food chain, particularly in fish. Mercury contamination is widespread. According to the EPA, one in six women of childbearing age in the U.S. has high enough levels of mercury in her blood to put her baby at risk of neurological damage. Fortunately, we can get a handle on the mercury problem, given the political will to do so. President Bush, unfortunately, has not shown that will.
One politician who has is Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who yesterday announced a plan to require utilities to cut mercury emissions by an average of 90 percent by July 2009. If passed, Illinois will join a growing list of states that have passed far more stringent mercury restrictions than those proposed by the Bush administration.
Even with mercury pollution checked at the smokestack, coal's larger problems remain -- the most ominous being greenhouse gas emissions. China, which has lost an incredible 10,000 miners in underground accidents since 2004, is an even larger producer and consumer of coal than the United States. The country, which draws 80 percent of its electricity from coal, has plans to build more than 500 additional coal-fired plants. As Susan Watts, science editor at the BBC, observes, "If the power plants go ahead, it will be all but impossible to avoid dangerous climate change." Clearly, if we hope to head off the worst, King Coal must be made to forfeit his crown.