Clean coal is a myth
There is no such thing as “clean coal,” despite what you might hear from the ads produced by the coal companies. Environmental experts agree that coal is the dirtiest fuel America uses to produce electricity. Nothing about coal is clean. Mining and burning coal scars lungs, tears up the land, pollutes water, devastates communities, and makes global warming worse.
Mining coal by removing mountain tops kills streams in Appalachia. The 500 existing coal power plants in the United States emit two billion tons of CO2 annually, making them the nation’s single largest source of global warming pollution. Other smokestack emissions from coal power plants are responsible for 25,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year. Acid drainage from mines pollutes streams and kills fish.
The process of “washing,” separating impurities from coal before it is burned uses enormous quantities of water which is discarded as a “slurry.” Up to 90 million gallons of slurry are produced every year in the U.S. and stored in large waste pits sometimes along with scrubber sludge. Sometime the dams impounding the slurry fail with disastrous consequences. On December 22, 2008 a dam broke near Knoxville, Tennessee spilling 500 million gallons of coal slurry, 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.
Burning coal is the largest source of sulfur dioxide pollution and the second largest source of nitrogen oxide (one of the components of smog) in the United States. This air pollution also causes acid rain which kills trees and harms aquatic life. Other pollutants emitted by burning coal include chromium, lead, arsenic, hydrogen chloride, and mercury. Mercury accumulates in fish and the people who eat them and can cause brain damage, mental retardation and other developmental problems.
The coal companies talk about new clean technologies. One of these, Carbon Capture and Sequestration, is unproven. Another, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, lowers soot and smog emissions but emits as much global warming pollution as other methods of burning and does nothing to clean up the mining process. Much touted liquid coal creates almost double the CO2 emissions per gallon as gasoline. Replacing just 10% of our nation’s fuel with it would require a more than 40% increase in coal mining.
To combat some of the myths propagated by the coal industry, Sierra Club has joined the Alliance for Climate Protection, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in launching an ad campaign telling the truth about coal.
To learn more visit www.sierraclub.org/coal.
*Much of this article is adapted from The Dirty Truth About Coal: Why Yesterday’s Technology Should Not Be Part of Tomorrow’s Energy Future, Alice McKeown, Sierra Club, 2007.