The Year In Dirty Energy: Coal


Most children already have a fear of coal – after all, they are threatened during childhood that if they misbehave, Santa Claus will leave them nothing but a lump of coal in their stocking. The older members of society, too, have plenty of reasons to fear coal as an energy source. Burning it pollutes our air and water and threatens our health. Mining it can be deadly for workers. And the entire life cycle of coal threatens the global climate.

When it comes to coal, two major issues dominated the environmental news front this year in particular: Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) and coal ash. While MTR has become an issue that most people are familiar with, the threats posed by coal ash remain largely under-reported (stay tuned for more on that in 2012).

As for MTR, here is a brief rundown of what’s happening:

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) entails blowing the tops off of entire mountains in order to extract the coal seems within. The method became popular when coal companies realized that they could produce two and a half times as much coal per worker hour by removing the tops of mountains, rather than traditional coal mining methods. As a result, some states have reduced the number of coal workers by as much as 60%, while output and profits have remained steady.

In addition to the obvious loss of mountains, the practice is riddled with environmental dangers. In order to extract the coal, the areas around the mountain are clear-cut, destroying wildlife habitat and leading to soil erosion. The waste products from the coal extraction also leak into water supplies, contaminating them with mercury, lead, sulfur, and other dangers chemicals. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, a staggering 2,200 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains will have been destroyed thanks to mountaintop removal mining.

One of the biggest stories on MTR that erupted this year was a documentary film called “The Last Mountain,” featuring environmental attorney and co-host of the Ring of Fire Radio show Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (full disclosure: Brendan and I both work on Ring of Fire as well).

From the press notes on The Last Mountain film:

In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal.

The mining and burning of coal is at the epicenter of America’s struggle to balance its energy needs with environmental concerns. Nowhere is that concern greater than in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where a small but passionate group of ordinary citizens are trying to stop Big Coal corporations, like Massey Energy, from continuing the devastating practice of Mountain Top Removal.

David, himself, never faced a Goliath like Big Coal.

The citizens argue the practice of dynamiting the mountain’s top off to mine the coal within pollutes the air and water, is responsible for the deaths of their neighbors and spreads pollution to other states. Yet, regardless of evidence supporting these claims, Big Coal corporations repeat the process daily in the name of profit. Massive profit allows Big Coal to wield incredible financial influence over lobbyists and government officials in both parties, rewrite environmental protection laws, avoid lawsuits and eliminate more than 40,000 mining jobs, all while claiming to be a miner’s best friend. As our energy needs increase, so does Big Coal’s control over our future. This fact and a belief that America was founded on the democratic principal that no individual or corporation owns the air and water and we all share the responsibility of protecting it, drives these patriotic citizens and their supporters from outside of Appalachia, like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to keep fighting.

The film focuses on one of the major players in MTR – Massey Energy. (Note: A few days after the film was released, Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy.) But as we’ve pointed out this year, Massey is not the only villain in the mountaintop mining story:

As media reports have focused on the deeds of Massey, the other mountaintop removal mining companies have been let off the hook, operating under the radar of most activists and the media. Here are a few of the other companies that are destroying Appalachia and other parts of America with MTR:

1. Arch Coal – Boasting that they supply more than 15% of America’s coal, Arch sold 2.1 million tons worth of MTR coal last year. Arch’s annual revenues top $1 billion, making them the nation’s second largest coal producer.

2. CONSOL Energy – Recently forced to pay $5.5 million in damages in West Virginia for their mountaintop mining activities, and to spend another $200 million on pollution control. Actively working with the U.S. Department of Energy on coal technologies, including coal-to-liquid technologies.

3. International Coal Group – Currently battling a lawsuit from the Sierra Club for selenium pollution in Kentucky that is a direct result of their mountaintop removal mining activities.

4. James River Coal CompanyForced to pay tens of thousands of dollars for damages to homes and a Church from their mountaintop mining activities.

5. Patriot Coal – Operates 14 different mountaintop removal sites throughout Appalachia and Illinois.

And there’s a good reason to know who the culprits are: MTR is destroying communities across America. From an earlier DeSmogBlog report this year:

A new study from the Journal of Community Health concludes that cancer rates in areas of Appalachia where mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is taking place are more than twice as high as areas that are not near MTR sites. According to the study, as many as 60,000 individual cancer cases can be linked directly to exposure from MTR debris.

The findings of this new study are especially alarming when paired with a recent study about the increasing number of birth defects in MTR areas. The birth defect study, conducted by researchers at Washington State University and West Virginia University, found that birth defects were 26% more likely to be seen in children that had been exposed to MTR wastes while in the womb.

Along with this environmental devastation, the authors confirm major impacts on human health in the Appalachian region, including “elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities” according to the study.

Duke University also took the time this year to compile a great report detailing the cumulative impacts of MTR:

Increased salinity and concentrations of trace elements in one West Virginia watershed have been tied directly to multiple surface coal mines upstream by a detailed new survey of stream chemistry. The Duke University team that conducted the study said it provides new evidence of the cumulative effects multiple mountaintop mining permits can have in a river network.

Our analysis of water samples from 23 sites along West Virginia’s Upper Mud River and its tributaries shows that salinity and trace element concentrations, including selenium, increased at a rate directly proportional to the cumulative amount of surface mining in the watershed,” said Duke researcher Ty Lindberg. “We found a strong linear correlation.”

And the major problems with coal don’t end with the extraction, or even with the burning of coal. The industry has found a way to continue making a profit, and polluting our planet, even after coal is burned. The product that allows them to do this is called coal ash (sometimes fly ash or bottom ash.) This “ash” is actually coal cinders that are captured during the burning process, and used for an array of products including bricks, concrete, back-fill dirt, and they’ve even started using it to de-ice highways in the winter.

Here’s one of many reasons why coal ash is cause for concern:

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has released a startling report showing that coal ash dumps near coal-burning power plants are leaching arsenic and other toxic chemicals into water supplies. The new report identifies 20 new sites in 10 different states where coal ash is contaminating water supplies. These sites are in addition to the 33 coal ash disposal sites that EIP identified earlier this year that are contaminating water supplies.

EIP has identified a total of 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states – Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. These include 19 sites where coal ash appears to have contaminated groundwater with arsenic or other pollutants at levels above Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). All but two have also measured concentrations of other pollutants – such as boron, molybdenum, and manganese – above EPA-recommended Health Advisories for children or adults. In addition, our report includes new information about 7 previously recognized damage cases, including stunning evidence of groundwater more toxic than hazardous waste leachate.

So, given the dangers of coal ash, you’d expect the EPA to be all over the issue, working to ban it as soon as possible, right? Wrong. Not only has the EPA decided to not make a ruling on whether or not they will regulate coal ash this year, the EPA under George W. Bush actually had a hand in promoting the use of coal ash:

A new report by the Inspector General claims that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promoted the use of coal ash without properly analyzing the risks. Coal ash is the byproduct produced when coal is burned, also referred to as “fly ash” or “bottom ash.”

The EPA began promoting the “recycling” of coal ash waste during the Bush administration, when energy companies and federal officials worked out a deal where the EPA would allow companies to sell their waste without federal oversight. The EPA held numerous town hall meetings last year to get citizens’ input on the matter before they issue a ruling on whether or not the coal ash waste should be considered “hazardous.”

DeSmogBlog and Polluter Watch published a report last year that details the lobbying blitz launched by coal producers to fend off EPA oversight of hazardous coal ash, including the suspiciously cozy relationship between the coal industry and the Bush EPA. The new Inspector General report confirms that the Bush EPA erred in its review of the safety of the widespread re-use of coal ash in many products and other applications.

To make matters worse, the coal industry has plenty of friends in Congress:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted this week to allow a new bill on the regulation of coal ash to be considered for a full House vote. The bill, known as The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, would prevent the E.P.A. from classifying coal ash (or fly ash) as a toxic substance, and instead would allow individual states to make their own rules regarding the storage and re-use of coal ash waste.

And no Congressman has done more to help the coal industry than Republican Representative David McKinley:

Republican Representative David McKinley from West Virginia has proposed a bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating toxic coal ash. The EPA has not yet made a decision on whether or not to classify coal ash as toxic, but reports show that the substance poses significant risks to human health.

But after looking into McKinley’s campaign coffers, it is no surprise that he is fighting tooth and nail to prevent coal ash from being labeled as toxic. He has received more than $83,000 from the mining industry – the single largest industry to donate to his campaign. But it isn’t just the mining industry that has put money behind McKinley – big oil got in on the game as well. Exxon Mobil put $8,000 in his pockets, and the Koch brothers threw in another $10,000. An interesting note about this freshman Congressman – 66% of his campaign contributions came from out of state. Not bad for a man who had never held a federal office before.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, the coal industry continues trying to teach your children that coal is great:

In May, Scholastic Inc. cancelled the distribution of a fourth-grade educational package entitled “United States of Energy” that was contracted by the American Coal Foundation. They ended up dropping the client because of outrage from the community over one-sided learning materials that conveniently left out the negative impacts that coal has on the environment and human health.

Also in May, a group released a parody website, Coal Cares, that satirized coal pollution’s link to childhood asthma. The website offered novelty inhalers to children within 200 miles of a coal plant. But fiction turned out to be not far from the truth.

It turns out that the coal industry has been creating children’s material for years, even some eerily similar to the farcical Coal Cares website. For example, the pro-coal group, Friends of Coal, put out a “Let’s Learn About Coal” coloring book two years ago.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity put out a website cartoon with singing lumps of coal for Christmas a couple years ago. The outrageous part is that if the coal industry were to do something like market a “coal ash sandbox” as a new environmental initiative to “recycle” the toxic byproducts of coal combustion, the public has been so desensitized to these type of tactics that it’s probably not out of the realm of possibility.

Until North America gets serious about transitioning to renewable clean energy sources, and getting corporate money out of politics, the coal industry and its many impacts on our lives and climate are here to stay. But luckily, so are we and countless other groups working to end our dirty energy addiction.


Farron Cousins is the executive editor of The Trial Lawyer magazine, and his articles have appeared on The Huffington Post, Alternet, and The Progressive Magazine. He has worked for the Ring of Fire radio program with hosts Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Mike Papantonio, and Sam Seder since August 2004, and is currently the co-host and producer of the program. He also currently serves as the co-host of Ring of Fire on Free Speech TV, a daily program airing nightly at 8:30pm eastern. Farron received his bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of West Florida in 2005 and became a member of American MENSA in 2009.  Follow him on Twitter @farronbalanced.

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