'Clean' coal is fantasy; state must invest in alternatives

Authors: ada

Crossposted from the Lansing State Journal.

By Steve Rall
Lansing State Journal
February 1, 2009

There is no such thing as clean coal. The extraction of coal in Appalachia has destroyed 450 mountaintops and 1,200 miles of rivers and streams by dumping "overfill" into the valleys from mountaintop removal mining. Coal is not clean.

The processing of the coal has left millions of gallons of toxic black slurry in "ponds" that have leeched into aquifers, rendering water sources unusable. Held back by huge earthen dams in former beautiful valleys, one such "pond" burst a few years ago and was described by the EPA as a disaster worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill (see www.ilovemountains.org). Coal is not clean.

The eight proposed coal-fired power plants in Michigan claim that they will be more efficient and reduce emissions compared to older coal plants they may be replacing. That may be true, but does that make them clean?

Let's look at one, the Rogers City/Wolverine proposal. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, this proposed "state of the art" coal plant will emit the following toxic contaminants: particulate matter, 975 tons per year; sulfur dioxide, 1,344 tons per year; nitrogen oxide, 2,647 tons per year; carbon monoxide, 4,002 tons per year; volatile organic compounds, 171.7 tons per year; lead, 0.36 tons per year; sulfuric acid mist, 80 tons per year; fluorides, 8 tons per year. This list does not even include carbon dioxide, which is the leading cause of climate change, nor does it include the leftover ash that is often disposed of in unsafe landfills. Coal is not clean.

Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org) reports that coal-fired power plants are one of "the nation's largest sources of air pollutants that damage cardiovascular and respiratory health and threaten healthy child development." Coal is not clean.

Finally, so-called "clean coal technology" often refers to "carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)." There is not one CCS demonstration project in the entire United States, let alone a commercial size operation where this theoretical technology has been shown to work. Even if it is possible to safely "bury" or store carbon dioxide, it is estimated that a workable, commercial-size effort is decades away. Should we continue to fund the research? Maybe. But let's be honest about its timing and its promise.

In the current economic climate, it would be crazy to invest billions of dollars into outmoded, polluting coal plants that we will be stuck with for 50 to 60 years. Nor does it make sense to send more of our tax dollars out of state to buy and transport the coal. The health and financial risks for the state, for Lansing and for ratepayers are enormous. Even major banks are pulling back from these projects. No matter how you look at it, coal is a dirty deal.

It makes more sense to invest in vigorous energy- efficiency programs that will create good jobs, help ratepayers reduce their electric bills and reduce our need for electricity. We can then pursue true clean energy.

Steve Rall of Lansing is a member of Lansing Can Do Better, "a coalition promoting reasonable alternatives to new coal plants."

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