News & Politics

Kudos to GQ for Revealing the Coal Industry's Dirty Secrets

The mag takes on the 'clean coal' myth and highlights coal's toxic legacy.

While lots of mainstream glossy mags take on some green issues, like Elle, Sports Illustrated, and Glamor, none that I've seen so far has picked a more important topic and done a better job at it than GQ's new feature on coalby Sean Flynn.

The narrative of the article focuses on the TVA coal ash spill in December in Tennessee, which we've reported on at length. It tells the story of a few of the folks who made their home, some for generations, around the area where the Emory River hits the Clinch -- a spot where TVA built their Kingston Fossil Plant to burn coal. For most of the people living there, the TVA plant was a neighborhood fixture, a big employer and a means for cheap electricity. Few questioned the potential hazards until the December catastrophe.

Here's a great quote from the story:

You assumed, when you live next to one of the largest coal-fired plants in the world, that it would not harm you, and that is not as irrational as it might first appear. You assumed that coal was at least relatively clean because you've been told that it is, and the air is clear and the water, nothing but beautiful water, is clean and there is a wildlife sanctuary in the big plant's shadows. You assumed that a green levee engineered by federal employees would not fall down. You assumed that the place you always wanted to live because it was so much prettier than anywhere else you'd ever lived wouldn't, in an instant, turn gray and poisoned.

And when you discover all of those assumptions were false, what more are you willing to believe? What more should you believe?

While the (quite lengthy) piece provides great reporting about the effects of the spill, which has been deemed the largest manmade environmental disaster in our country's history, and its narrative is sustained by stories of the folks who lived there, loved their homes, and lost it all -- the best part of the Flynn's article is how he confronts the myth of clean coal. Here's a part where he writes about the Hawthorn Group, a marketing firm hired by coal companies to convince the American people that coal can somehow be clean:

Obama still talks about it, and he gets cheers every time. Because the public now believes in clean coal. Hawthorn polled what the firm considered "public opinion leaders" in September 2007 and again at the end of 2008 on, among other things, whether they favored burning coal to generate electricity. The first go-round was a split: 46 percent in favor, 50 percent opposed. But after a year of Hawthorn bleating "clean coal" over and over, support rose to 72 percent--and opposition nose-dived to 22 percent.

Results such as these would be impressive no matter what the issue. Yet they are especially so in this instance, because the idea Hawthorn is selling -- Coal is clean! - -is complete horseshit.

Thank you Sean Flynn! Clean coal is horseshit, indeed. I hope Obama reads GQ.  Kudos to Flynn and GQ for a story that takes on all the aspects of why coal isn't clean -- from the extraction to the burning -- and all the hazards of what happens to the toxic waste at every stage.

And here's one last bit from the piece to give you something to think about while you click over GQ's site to read the whole story:

In a sense, then, our appetite for coal--our want and need for lights and televisions and toasters--is a slow-motion suicide pact, no different really from that of a two-pack-a-day smoker: It's all very pleasant and satisfying in the moment, but sooner or later...

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.
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