Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dark Side of Clean Coal



I have always loved trees, and I feel that over the years, I have at times expended great effort to protect them. Last September however, when Fayetteville took a direct hit from the remains of Hurricane Ike, I had a rather new experience with some of the trees around my cabin as the wind and rain brought three or four of them down upon the cottage that I live in. Fortunately, there was very little damage. It could have been much worse.

After the storm, I looked at some of the trees that still stood directly in back of and in close proximity to the house. They were of the same type that came down and gave me such a harrowing night during Ike - tall, and of that invasive species known as the Tree of Heaven, or more scientifically, Ailanthus altissima. Looking closely at them, I could see that the direction they were leaning in, or their center of gravity, made them a further threat to the cottage; another wind or ice storm could easily bring them down upon me - perhaps, even as I slept. Much to my personal consternation, I decided that they had to go; and, they did a few days ago.

Even though these trees were of a prolific and invasive species, I took no pleasure in seeing them go. Now, when I step outside my back door, I see the stumps where the trees once stood, the stumps surrounded only by sawdust. Seeing the destruction that I caused, even though it was necessary, leaves me with a feeling of sadness. There is a new scar upon the Earth, and it's right outside my back door. Now, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring when some of the tall grasses that present themselves there each year will grow back and will begin to heal the scar.

Being of such a sensitive nature, at least in an environmental sense, it's difficult for me to imagine that there are many people that, when pushing their industry's agenda upon the general public, will conceal many of the facts about that industry's environmentally-destructive nature. At this point in time, I am particularly talking about the propaganda coming forth from the Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) as it pushes for the construction of the
John W. Turk Jr. Power Plant in Hempstead County; a plant, that SWEPCO claims will burn so-called "clean coal."

On December 9, a letter to the editor appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Times that was authored by Paul Chodak, the President and Chief Operating Officer of SWEPCO in Shreveport. During the course of his letter, Mr. Chodak presented the typical selling points of those promoting clean coal. Near the end of the letter he said, "We take seriously our responsibility to protect the environment as we work to bring the latest technology to the region to provide reasonably priced and reliable electricity to our customers."

What Mr. Chodak failed to mention is that the process for producing coal, including so-called clean coal, often involves one of the most environmentally-destructive operations on Earth. This process is called mountain-top removal coal mining, and it is seriously impacting many parts of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains with environmental desecration that not only harms wildlife, but threatens entire communities as well. Mountain-top removal mining has been referred to as "strip mining on steroids." Much of the Appalachian's scenic beauty is being destroyed by this process.

Through this process the forest, and often most of a mountain, is first clear-cut and stripped of virtually all vegetation. Then the top 800 to 1,000 feet of the hill are bulldozed away and the top is completely leveled. The resulting debris is then pushed over the side and deposited into the valleys and streams below, thus polluting and damming up streams that are used for fishing, or even eventually, municipal water supplies.

Large amounts of water and toxic chemicals are used in order to supposedly, wash or clean the coal. At a time when demand and competition for clean water continues to grow, large amounts of it are permanently taken out of circulation and are stored in large slurry ponds - reservoirs of thick liquid and toxic waste. These slurry ponds often jeopardize public safety.

On October 11, 2000, one such slurry impoundment gave way spilling an estimated 300 million gallons of toxic sludge near Inez, Kentucky.
The EPA referred to the Inez spill as the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States as the toxic mixture fouled some 100 miles of waterways and buried parts of the community under seven feet of coal sludge. On February 26, 1972, a coal-waste dam burst in Logan County, West Virginia. According to reliable reports and eyewitness testimony, over 132 million gallons of sludge barreled through some 16 coal-mining communities along Buffalo Creek, thus killing 125 people and leaving another 4,000 homeless.

There are good reasons to oppose the use and further mining of coal that go way beyond the singular discussion of air quality that industry executives such as Mr. Chodak would like to keep us focused on. These represent an even darker side to the story than most of the public ever gets to hear about. Still, just because these concerns are never addressed by industry personnel does not mean that they are not valid. There is no such thing as clean coal!

It's likely that not everyone will have the same environmental sensitivity as I do. We are all different and every individual has his or her own way of looking at things. Still, it seems to me that the deliberate covering up or downplaying of potentially catastrophic processes such as mountain-top removal coal mining with the use of phrases such as "clean coal," carries the topic away from one of sensitivity to one of downright deception by the electric and coal industries. The public needs to know all of the truth, not just a part of it.

Please note: Both photos courtesy of Vivian Stockman / www.ohvec.org , and the flyover courtesy of Southwings.org .

3 comments:

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David Franks said...

As long as you have the stumps, you will probably have trees again. Ailanthus is hard to exterminate, even by annihilation.

It might assuage your queasiness to think of them as giant herbs: There's little really woody about them, and they smell funny.

I'd get those stumps ground out.

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