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Energy
King Coal
Despite its downsides, this dirty fuel still reigns.

On December 22, 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash—the chalky, toxic byproduct of coal combustion—spilled from the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, Tennessee, coating nearly 300 acres of waterways and land in up to six feet of sludge. Today the Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the facility, and the EPA are still working on the estimated $1.2 billion cleanup.

The accident illustrates coal’s dirty side, belying industry’s aggressive campaign to depict it as a benign energy source. The development of “clean coal” technology—which includes carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that aims to trap CO2 from power plant emissions and bury it—is attracting billions of federal dollars, and may feature in U.S. climate change legislation and the Copenhagen climate talks in December. Meanwhile, U.S. environmental groups, such as Audubon Arkansas, have successfully blocked construction of new coal plants, including a proposed 600-megawatt facility near Texarkana. But coal—which produces nearly a third of our electricity and 35 percent our CO2 emissions—is too cheap and plentiful, and our energy needs too great, to expect that it won’t be a big part of the energy mix. Even if smokestack emissions are slashed, without drastic changes to the industry, coal mining and combustion waste will continue to destroy habitat and harm wildlife.

“So much attention is given to carbon emissions and climate change because they have such global consequences that the other, more local environmental impacts of coal are often overlooked,” says Frank Alix, CEO of Powerspan, a CCS technology developer. “But coal will inevitably be a part of our energy future.” 

In Appalachia during the past 15 years, mountaintop removal—scraping or blasting away rock to mine underlying coal—has leveled some 470 summits, buried at least 700 miles of waterways, and destroyed 380,000 acres of forest, estimates the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Mountaintop removal has disassembled beautiful landscapes in my area,” says West Virginian Maria Gunnoe, who won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2009 for fighting extraction practices. “My water runs gray from pollution and silt. The industry needs to change, and fast.”

There are other ways to limit coal’s poisonous legacy. One is to incorporate fly ash into concrete; it makes concrete stronger, less porous, and usually cheaper. In California road projects must use cement with at least 25 percent fly ash.

Habitat restoration is another approach, but it requires stricter oversight, environmentalists say. For instance, Congress mandated surface-mine reclamation in 1977, but instead of spreading adequate topsoil and planting vegetation, companies often just dump dirt on the surface and then compact it, which can cause runoff and flooding. In June the Obama administration proposed new mountaintop mining rules, but they got a mixed response, and many environmentalists called for tougher regulations and no new permit approvals without thorough environmental review. The plan suffered a blow in August when a federal judge denied a provision to reverse a Bush-era rule that allows dumping surface mine waste near streams.

Regulations and technology have made coal cleaner than it was 50 years ago, and Alix is optimistic about its future. “We have a new generation of environmentalists pushing for stricter regulations and innovative scientists developing new technologies. We’ll get there, but there is still a lot of work to be done.” But others are doubtful.  Only a federal ban on mountaintop mining can reduce the devastation, says Gunnoe.

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