The False Promise of 'Clean Coal'
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On the West Virginia-Ohio border, the tread of the county's coal-burning power industry is expanding, digging into the Appalachian Mountains and kicking up clouds of pollution. While small towns choked by power plants hear the promise of new "clean coal" technologies, mining communities know there is no technological remedy for the destruction the industry is wreaking in their communities.
Though most people probably associate coal with the bygone Industrial Age, the Bush administration considers it an essential part of the nation's energy mix. At least 114 new coal-burning power plants are currently in the building or permitting stages around the country. According to a 2006 report from the US Energy Information Administration, US power consumption from coal is expected to rise 1.9 percent per year through 2030, significantly more than the expected rise in energy consumption from petroleum (1.1 percent) and natural gas (0.7 percent).
Elisa Young, an aspiring organic farmer in Racine Ohio, finds herself surrounded by this growing industry. Up to four new coal-burning plants are proposed for her area, even though her bucolic land is already ringed by smokestacks. Three major coal-burning power plants are visible from her farm, which has been in the Young family for seven generations. Within a short span of 20 miles, American Electric Power Corp. (AEP) operates three power plants, and Ohio Valley Electric Corporation owns another.
Young would like to stay to farm her land, but she is up against an industry that would rather buy out the area than acquiesce to the health and environmental concerns of residents.
A dirty reputation
About 15 miles away from the Young farm is the nearly abandoned Cheshire, Ohio, a stark reminder of the economic power of the coal-burning industry. In 2001, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reviewed environmental data provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency around AEP's General John M. Gavin plant and concluded that "sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid levels in and around Cheshire pose a public health hazard to some residents, particularly residents with asthma."
Under threat of a lawsuit, AEP bought nearly all the private property in the village for about $20 million in 2002 - a price that gave most residents a deal well above property values.
Despite this record, AEP is proposing a new coal-burning plant in Meigs County and another across the river in New Haven, West Virginia where it already runs the Mountaineer and Philip Sporn plants. American Municipal Power-Ohio has also proposed a new plant in Meigs County, and a consortium of coal and energy companies called FutureGen, which includes AEP and coal giants Massey and Peabody, is considering the area to locate an experimental new facility.
The plants proposed by AEP would use a new technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) that boasts drastically reduced sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and mercury emissions. The companies advertise the FutureGen plant as a zero emissions project, which would eliminate the SO2, NOx and mercury emissions and also sequester the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).
In addition to citing the need to build new plants to meet increased demand, AEP also says the state of the art IGCC plants will create hundreds of jobs; for the Ohio plant alone, the company projects more than 1,000 temporary positions to open during construction followed by 125 permanent slots once the facility is running.
Local politicians and many residents welcome the plants.
"The economy's so bad, without the plants there's not much else," Karen Werry, a local historian and friend of Young's, told The NewStandard. "I hate the pollution, but we need the jobs."
But Young isn't buying in.
While she is skeptical of the relatively untested clean coal technology and worried about the solid waste the plants will produce, Young's main concerns center on coal's dirty legacy. The plans for the new plants do not include any promises to reduce emissions at the existing plants. And nothing about zero-emissions technology can help her friends Larry Gibson and Maria Gunnoe across the river in West Virginia, where strip mining is permanently removing vast swaths of the mountain range to feed the nation's power plants.
In fact, clean air standards have accelerated environmental destruction in West Virginia where low-sulfur coal is found beneath the Earth's surface. With coal prices up and coal-fired power plants pegged by the Bush administration as the energy source of the future, strip mining in Appalachia is increasing at a fast pace.
Gibson's land in the once-lush Appalachian forest outside Charleston now looks more like New Mexico; an especially brutal form of strip mining known as "mountaintop removal" has turned it into a swath of bare mesas and plateaus dotted by oily sludge ponds.
His neighbor Gunnoe has seen the water in her well become totally undrinkable, contaminated with selenium, lime, arsenic and other toxins. The poison is delivered in run-off from two nearby containing ponds storing chemical waste produced by the cleaning of coal.
Young, Gibson and Gunnoe live at the intersection of environmental devastation from both ends of the coal-fired power industry: Mountaintop-removal miners have devastated more than 300,000 acres of West Virginia's rolling mountains by blasting it away or pushing it into adjacent valleys. Meanwhile, Ohio's array of coal-fired power plants is among the most concentrated in the country.
A 2005 report by the anti-pollution group Clear the Air found that the state ranked first in the country for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in 2005 and second in the country for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2003.
"We're definitely opposed to building more power plants in Ohio," said Erin Bowser, director of Ohio Public Interest Research Group. She told TNS that although the new proposals may be for facilities producing low or zero emissions, "they don't include anything about taking these older, dirtier coal plants off line. We need to invest our resources in wind, solar and clean biomass energy instead. Ohio has tremendous wind potential that we're not taking advantage of."
Young herself is afraid that if nothing is done about the power plants, and if the new ones are built, the environment will become too unhealthy for her to stay at the farm no matter how much she loves it.
In the family cemetery on a hillside on the farm, she rubs the corroded surface of one gravestone. "This was here since the 1700s, and when I was a kid you could still read it," she said. "Not now, because of the contamination in the air. They're erasing our family history, literally. Kids call the plants 'cloud factories.' Clouds that can kill you."
Though mining and coal-fired power plants are inextricably linked, Young notes that many people don't acknowledge that connection. Even prominent clean-air and environmental groups, including the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, often speak out in favor of "clean coal" technology like IGCC. But critics insist clean coal as a red herring that might improve air quality but still creates a host of serious health and environmental problems.
"It's like a Pandora's box," Young says of her growing awareness of the coal industry's harmful effects. "Now when I see these piles of coal I just think of mountains and cry."