“Clean Coal” Poisons Water and Land Instead of Air

The Coastal Post Online describes the many dangers of using coal for energy. Excerpts below.

Building more coal fired plants for electricity will sacrifice the future health of our country. But there are powerful forces who profit now and they are investing in political influence.

Link: Coastal Post Online Article January, 2008.

Big Coal and its cohorts envision a "clean coal technology" future fueled by liquifying and gasifying coal, capturing the carbon emissions and injecting them underground.

But scientists and environmentalists say "clean coal" does not exist; it is a misnomer and an oxymoron. The National Resources Defense Council says that using the term "clean coal" makes about as much sense as saying "safe cigarettes." The extraction and cleaning of coal inevitably decimate ecosystems and communities.

Nationwide there are grandiose plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, but they all hinge on being able to sell the public and legislators on outfitting and funding these new plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. This process siphons off or "captures" carbon dioxide before it can escape into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain, smog and warming the planet. The sequestered carbon would then be pumped and stored underground.

But is it really possible to bury our daily CO2 emission? Australia’s renown physicist, Karl Kruszelnicki, who is running for public office on the Climate Change Coalition ticket, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 1, "One cubic kilometer of CO2 to get rid of every day? It’s not possible! But they don’t tell you that that’s what they’ve got to get rid of. They make reassuring noises that they’re spending millions looking for underground caverns. But I’m here to tell you that they’re not going to find it … The point is that they can only store 1,000th of 1 percent, not all their daily output."

Not only do we not have the capacity to store all the CO2 we produce, but the technology isn’t there yet. The coal industry acknowledges that CCS is 15 years away, but continues to promulgate the myth of "clean coal technology" and guide generous government subsidies to themselves and to West Virginia universities, assigning valuable research money to dirty technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2007 report "The Future of Coal" stated that "there is no standard for measurement, monitoring, and verification of CO2 distribution. Duration of post-injection monitoring is an unresolved issue."

In other words, Big Coal is betting on a pipe dream with an entire ecosystem at stake. Adding CCS to plans for the more than 100 proposed coal-fired power plants on the drawing board would increase operating budgets by 50 percent to 80 percent. And the gasifying and liquifying of coal into syn-gas and diesel would create potential emissions twice as carbon-rich as petroleum-based gasoline or natural gas. If Big Coal gets its way, the U.S. Air Force will cruise the skies on liquid coal fuel — spewing dangerously concentrated CO2 into our fragile atmosphere, and we’ll be building more polluting plants based on false promises from an outlaw industry.

Exacerbating the water crisis

To many observers, the next natural resource wars will be waged over water, not oil or coal. People in the United States are waking up to the reality of a looming water crisis, but the coal industry is still advocating for a technology that is part of the problem, not the solution.

The U.S. Department of Energy stated in December 2006 that the demand for water to produce coal conversion fuels "threaten our limited water supply." Coal conversion — gasification or liquefaction — requires an absurd amount of fresh water. Each new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) or coal to liquid (CTL) plant will require millions of gallons of fresh water every day. And these new plants will require even more coal.

Big Coal’s proposed plans will require a large increase in coal extraction — at least 15 percent more, though some reports quote as high as a 45 percent increase in coal production would be necessary to fuel "clean coal technology." The surge in demand for coal would be met with a surge in mountaintop-removal coal mining, which means more water pollution. Mountaintop-removal mining and the chemical cleaning of coal also threatens Appalachian headwater streams, which are the drinking water source for the southeastern United States — an area that has endured frightening water shortages this year in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The coal-to-liquid plants that coal state politicians like Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky are scrambling to site in their states would have one consequence that many observers underestimate or ignore: the increase in production of coal sludge — one of the least known and least regulated toxic wastes in the United States — a direct threat to water supplies.

Coal sludge, laden with heavy metals found in coal and released during extraction, like arsenic, chromium, cadmium and mercury, has been pumped underground in West Virginia for decades, with scant regulatory oversight. The sludge has intercepted underground water tables, from which mountain communities draw their drinking water. Coal sludge also contains carcinogenic chemicals like floculants, which are used to process coal.

In West Virginia, the second-largest coal-producing state in the nation, more than 470 mountaintops have been blown apart, 800 square miles of the most diverse temperate hardwood forest razed and replaced with more than 4,000 valley fills and 675 toxic coal sludge ponds. By 2012, the U.S. government estimates that we will have destroyed 2,500 square miles of pristine Appalachia. Currently there are over 107 trillion gallons of coal slurry stored or permitted to be stored in active West Virginia "impoundments."

The total mechanization of coal extraction epitomized by mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining has buried thousands of miles of vital headwater streams and pumped previously mined lands full of sludge. The coal industry says that it has "elevated" some streams — after they’ve buried them upstream — relocating them and "repurposing" them into chemical spillways called National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) streams.

Coal sludge, the waste by-product of the chemical cleaning of coal in preparation for shipping to market, is initially put into surface ponds, but eventually this chemically concentrated, puddinglike waste leaches into the groundwater. In southern West Virginia, where the largest seams of coal lie, whole communities have been poisoned over years by mining waste that has contaminated their drinking water.

Coal sludge is a disaster waiting to happen, like the 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge that stand behind a 325-foot, leaking, unsound dam of slate, 400 yards from the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, W.Va. Or Brushy Fork in Boone County, W.Va., one of the largest coal sludge dumps in the world, holding back 9 billion gallons of coal waste.

Sludge is also injected underground into the sprawling abandoned mine works of decades past. Coal sludge is turning up in the water in Mingo County, W.Va., where documentation of this practice stretches back for more than 30 years. Residents of Mingo County have suffered catastrophic illness after the toxic sludge breached the local aquifers that feed home wells. More than 650 of these residents have signed on to a massive class-action lawsuit against the offending coal company, Massey Energy.

Pursuing "clean coal technology" will cause an increase in the production of coal and toxic coal waste, which contains dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, coper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. In some cases, there are no standards by which to measure contaminants because some have never before been found in drinking water.

While scrubbers on smoke stacks have cleaned coal-fired power plant emissions considerably, the cleaning on the combustion end causes the processing of coal for market to be exponentially dirtier. The coal going to market is cleaner-burning today, with lower sulfur and mercury content, but these dangerous elements are left behind in the coal sludge and in drinking water.

The dirty truth about "clean coal"

The environmental destruction caused by mountaintop-removal coal extraction is just one of many reasons to immediately transition out of coal. A plethora of substantial hurdles for the alternative coal industry include technological uncertainties, billion-dollar budgets, lack of project partners willing to invest in coal, growing concern about carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, uncertainty about future environmental regulations, rising constructions costs and an array of water contamination issues.

But, we’ve been here before. In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government invested $15 billion in a failed attempt to jump-start the coal-based synthetic fuel industry, including the infamous 1.5 billion syn-fuel plant in Beulah, N.D. In the end, the ’80s era attempt at coal gasification and liquefaction failed miserably because of volatile oil prices bankrupting the nascent industry, leaving taxpayers with a $330 million loss.

The newborn West Virginia Division of Energy — formed to put a better face on coal — would like to institutionalize all possible manifestations of coal production. The state agency says it would like to surround coal extraction sites and the coal-fired power plants with "additional advance coal opportunities" like the "production of ammonia nitrate from coal, as well as nitrates for fertilizer."

These processes require the same copious amounts of water as CTL and IGCC plants. WVDoE’s outline for an energy future goes hand in hand with what mountain people call the declaration of a "National Sacrifice Zone" fueled by a plan to depopulate the coal-rich region of the southern mountains. A similar strategy was publicly declared when the federal government found uranium under Native American lands in the Four Corners area in the 1970s. In the end, the uranium was deemed more important than the land and the people; vast regions of Native American lands were declared "National Sacrifice Zones," and people were forced from their homelands.

Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship, recently suggested the idea of a far-reaching coal industrial complex upon releasing a statement regarding the purchase of vast parcels of coal lands, increasing Massey’s reserve holding to 100 million tons in northern Appalachia. "This region is becoming increasingly important to the coal and energy industry, and this transaction will enable us to take advantage of the growth in demand for northern Appalachian coal," he said. Massey’s newly acquired coal lands are in West Virginia, across the Ohio River from Meigs County, Ohio, where a notorious cluster of coal-fired power plants are concentrated.

And momentum is building in the region. At a coal-to-liquids conference in Beckley, W.Va., in August this year, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent word to the crowd saying, "We need the equivalent of the Apollo and Manhattan Projects that would provide billions in federal funding for research and development so that the best and brightest engineers and scientific minds can tackle carbon capture sequestration and CTL development."

It is time to stop the momentum and break our coal habit. Instead we need an Apollo and Manhattan project to replace coal with solar, wind and geothermal, or our kids will be stuck cleaning up after the dirtiest energy industry. Coal companies are notorious for leaving their mess behind.

via Fred First

Do Real Estate Developers Dictate Environmental Policy?

Below is a letter to the editor from the 5/12/2007 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Link: Saturday Talk | ajc.com

Balanced board crucial to our river

I would like to express my grave concern that the Georgia Board of Natural Resources is becoming a rubber stamp for development and destruction of our state’s rivers and streams.

I am a member of the Georgia Women Fly Fishers, a group dedicated to advancing the sport of fly fishing and promoting conservation. We fish regularly in the Chattahoochee and have first-hand knowledge that development runoff causes degradation of the river with every rain. This problem is only getting worse.

It is alarming that Gov. Sonny Perdue, despite his claimed goal of wanting to make Georgia a fishing paradise, has removed all voices from the board that oversees the Department of Natural Resources that advocate for clean water and public green space.

We must have balanced representation. Having a board dominated by big developer interests at a time when water is our most precious and declining natural resource is not only bad for tourism, it is contrary to the greater public welfare and common sense.

JOY …, Smyrna

The explosive growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area has created huge wealth for many real estate developers. Environmental regulations increase the cost and complexity of real estate development. Many elected officials from the governor down to the small town boards have been influenced by the developers and their representatives to ignore the impact of unfettered development on streams and natural areas.

Governor Perdue provides another disappointing example of a politician committing to a position to get elected and then making appointments that contradict that position. Perhaps when enough attention is focused on these elected officials, they will not sell out defenseless streams and natural areas so thoughtlessly.

When do we stop sacrificing natural resources, like clean water, that are essential to the health of future generations?

Creative Thinking: The Play Pump

I saw a documentary on PBS Frontline about the Play Pump. Trevor Field, a true creative thinker, saw a problem (poor water quality and availability in South African villages) and designed a solution (a pump that taps an aquifer far underground and fills a holding tank above ground) powered by an untapped energy source (kids wanting to play.) Excerpts and video from Frontline below.

Link: FRONTLINE/WORLD . Rough Cut . South Africa: The Play Pump | PBS

Trevor Field, a retired advertising executive, had done well in life and wanted to give back to his community. He noticed that in many rural villages around the eastern Cape, the burden of collecting water fell mainly to the women and girls of the household. Each morning, he’d see them set off to the nearest borehole to collect water. They used leaky and often contaminated hand-pumps to collect the water, then they carried it back through the bush in buckets weighing 40 pounds. It was exhausting and time-consuming work.

"The amount of time these women are burning up collecting water, they could be at home looking after their kids, teaching their kids, being loving mothers." He knew there had to be a better solution.

Field then teamed up with an inventor and came up with the "play pump" — a children’s merry-go-round that pumps clean, safe drinking water from a deep borehole every time the children start to spin. Soup to nuts, the whole operation takes a few hours to install and costs around $7,000. Field’s idea proved so inventive, so cost-efficient and so much fun for the kids that World Bank recognized it as one of the best new grassroots ideas.

In true ad-man style, Field’s next idea was to use the play pump’s water towers as makeshift billboards, selling ad space to help pay for the upkeep. He reserves a spot for the national loveLife campaign, which helps educate children about HIV and AIDS. "We’ve got to get the message through to them before they become sexually active," he says. "It seems to be working."

In the film, Costello and producer/photographer Cassandra Herrman drive out to a small village where the taps have been dry for a week. There, a crew sets to work installing a play pump near a children’s play area, boring 40 meters down until they hit the fresh water table below. As soon as the last colorful piece of the puzzle is in place, dozens of children show up to play — much to Field’s delight — pumping cool, clean water to the surface as they spin.

The indefatigable entrepreneur wants to build thousands of these pumps to help water-stressed communities across South Africa, then expand to other African countries. He says, "It would make a major difference to the children, and that’s where our passion lies."

Watch the Frontline Play Pump video

Hog farms as an energy source?

The StarNewsOnline.com (Wilmington, NC) reports that there may be some value to the hog farm waste that can cause significant environmental damage, as I described in a previous post (Why We Should Eat Less Pork). Bottom line: Hog manure can be used to produce methane, but the waste products don’t go away.

Link: Hog farms seen as energy source | StarNewsOnline.com | Star-News | Wilmington, NC

Using available technology, North Carolina’s hog farms could produce enough electricity to serve more than 90,000 homes, according to a new study commissioned by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Extrapolating from data about the state’s hog industry – the second largest in the nation, after Iowa – and from experience with waste-to-energy experiments, engineers at LaCapra Associates estimated that 93 megawatts of power could reasonably be generated on the state’s swine farms.

The issue is important to eastern North Carolina, which is home to more than 6 million hogs and the vast majority of the state’s large hog farms. Because of concerns over the effect of hog waste on the region’s water resources, lawmakers halted the opening of new hog farms. Under a legal agreement, the state government and the state’s largest pork producers have spent millions seeking a cost-effective solution for hog waste to replace the open-air lagoon systems now in use.

That legal agreement, and the new attention of the utilities commission and the state legislature, might provide the impetus to bring the study’s estimates closer to reality, said Molly Diggins, director of the state branch of the Sierra Club.

Serious engineering and policy challenges remain, said Leonard Bull, an N.C. State University scientist and deputy director of State’s animal waste research center.

"There are two or three technologies which show promise," Bull said. "But the issues about connecting to the electrical grid are difficult. Becoming a power producer is a slow and laborious process."

Why We Should Eat Less Pork

Rolling Stone magazine’s Jeff Tietz describes how America’s top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the largest fines in EPA history. Excerpts below. Warning: do not read any further if you eat pork or have a weak stomach.

Link: Rolling Stone : Pork’s Dirty Secret: The nation’s top hog producer is also one of America’s worst polluters

Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world, killed 27 million hogs last year…. The logistical challenge of processing that many pigs each year is roughly equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, Denver, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Las Vegas, Portland, Oklahoma City and Tucson.

The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield’s total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year.

…many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield’s business model.

The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That’s a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides.

Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they’re slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

Millions of factory-farm hogs — one study puts it at ten percent — die before they make it to the killing floor. Some are taken to rendering plants, where they are propelled through meat grinders and then fed cannibalistically back to other living hogs. Others are dumped into big open pits called "dead holes," or left in the dumpsters for so long that they swell and explode. The borders of hog farms are littered with dead pigs in all stages of decomposition, including thousands of bleached pig bones. Locals like to say that the bears and buzzards of eastern North Carolina are unusually lazy and fat.

Unsurprisingly, prolonged exposure to hog-factory stench makes the smell extremely hard to get off. Hog factory workers stink up every store they walk into. I run into a few local guys who had made the mistake of accepting jobs in hog houses, and they tell me that you just have to wait the smell out: You’ll eventually grow new hair and skin. If you work in a Smithfield hog house for a year and then quit, you might stink for the next three months.

Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act — the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield’s annual sales.

A river that receives a lot of waste from an industrial hog farm begins to die quickly. Toxins and microbes can kill plants and animals outright; the waste itself consumes available oxygen and suffocates fish and aquatic animals; and the nutrients in the pig shit produce algal blooms that also deoxygenate the water.

The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.

Spills aren’t the worst thing that can happen to toxic pig waste lying exposed in fields and lagoons. Hurricanes are worse. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers. Many of the pig-shit lagoons of eastern North Carolina were several feet underwater.

From a waste-disposal perspective, Hurricane Floyd was the best thing that had ever happened to corporate hog farming in North Carolina. Smithfield currently has tens of thousands of gallons of open-air waste awaiting more Floyds.

North Carolina, where pigs now outnumber people, has passed a moratorium on new hog operations and ordered Smithfield to fund research into alternative waste-disposal technologies. South Carolina, having taken a good look at its neighbor’s coastal plain, has pronounced the company unwelcome in the state. The federal government and several states have challenged some of Smithfield’s recent acquisition deals and, in a few instances, have forced the company to agree to modify its waste-lagoon systems.

There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company. According to Dr. Michael Mallin, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who has researched the effects of corporate farming on water quality, the volumes of concentrated pig waste produced by industrial hog farms are plainly not containable in small areas. The land, he says, "just can’t absorb everything that comes out of the barns." From the moment that Smithfield attained its current size, its waste-disposal problem became conventionally insoluble.

Studies have shown that lagoons emit hundreds of different volatile gases into the atmosphere, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. A single lagoon releases many millions of bacteria into the air per day, some resistant to human antibiotics. Hog farms in North Carolina also emit some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.

via John at Foggy Bottom Farms