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 Going Green: Coal Remains As Malevolent As Ever

Environmentby Carl Pope

Both sides continue to draw lines in the sand as climate and energy legislation debates rage in Congress. Many heavy-hitters are making their voices heard – but none perhaps more so than the coal industry.

Let’s compare what’s best for the United States here. Clean energy legislation will create millions of jobs, boost the economy, and reduce our global warming pollution. Giving Big Coal endless loopholes props up an industry that poisons communities, pollutes our air, adds to our global warming pollution, and has done nothing to end its job growth stagnation in the past decade (a recent study shows the wind industry now employs more people than coal mining!).

You see, using coal to power our country is dirty from beginning to end – coal’s entire lifecycle harms people and the earth. At the beginning, destructive mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia destroys watersheds and contaminates community drinking water. Mining companies fill streams with waste blown off the tops of mountains. ...

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But in reality - communities just want to see mountaintop removal coal mining stopped all together. And yet the dirty coal cycle doesn’t stop with mountaintop removal. Trucks take the coal to the processing facilities – but not before they leave a trail of harmful dust and haze in mining communities. Once burned, coal is just as dirty. It causes more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution and contributes to major health problems, including asthma and other respiratory issues – not to mention the mercury pollution coal plants spew.

But the major newsmaker recently comes from the very end of the coal cycle – the ash waste from burning coal – which is frequently kept in artificial ponds near coal facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released a list of the 44 coal ash sites deemed “high hazard.” Coal ash is the same black goo that devastated a Tennessee town last December when a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam failed and released 1 billion gallons of the heavy metal-laden sludge into area rivers.

This comes two weeks after a coalition of organizations including the Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the release of the list.

The "high hazard potential" coal ash storage sites listed by EPA are all located near coal-fired electric power plants concentrated in 10 states. After doing some demographic research on these locations, we’ve also noticed that 20 of the coal ash storage sites are in areas where high percentages of people live below the poverty line (some sites have more than one pond).

We still don’t know just how many of the hundreds of coal ash sites nationwide are leaking toxic pollution into local drinking water supplies, but evidence is mounting that dozens of communities are living with that nightmare every day. We do know that the cancer rate is as high as 1 in 50 for those living near the most hazardous sites.

An industry that fights to keep communities in the dark about hazards is not interested in what is best for the public, only in what is best for the industry’s bottom line. The industry doesn’t deserve the free pass it has enjoyed for years. We must stop mountaintop removal coal mining, lower our global warming pollution by decreasing the coal used for energy production, and regulate coal ash.

We must move the United States beyond coal and toward a clean energy economy. Communities are in pain – this is a justice issue in Appalachia and other communities that suffer from devastating mining, being located near coal ash sites, or from dangerous soot and air pollution.

Until coal cleans up its act, it's time to get America running on clean energy. A wind farm at West Virginia's Coal River Mountain that creates jobs both in the manufacturing of the farm and its operation makes a lot more sense than blowing up the mountain to get a small supply of coal. Instead of the toxic legacy of America's dirty energy past, the clean energy future promises millions of new jobs, healthier communities, and a safer climate for future generations.


Carl Pope is Executive Director of the Sierra Club


Distributed by MinutemanMedia.org

[24 July 2009]

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