Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Clean Coal Myth


The people of Tennessee now know what regular dirty coal is all about. Emphasis mine below.
What may be the nation’s largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity.

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

The spill took place at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority generating plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River, and then the Tennessee River just downstream.
...
The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.

Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was “mind-boggling” that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers. [NY Times]
But what is so-called "clean coal." Well, it is really a myth. Once, to the coal industry, it just meant applying new technology to old plants. With global climate change and greenhouse carbon emissions being the likely major factor, clean coal has come to mean "the idea that the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal in power plants might be captured and stored, preventing it from contributing to climate change." [Slate]

So we can spend millions of dollars per plant to get rid of the carbon by storing it deep in the earth in collection tanks. Germany will probably have the first pilot "mini" plant online, at a cost so far of 70 million Euros for just the one "mini" plant. [BBC]

So it is expensive but does promise us reduced emissions. Oh, but what about all of the ash? Clean coal only promises to reduce greenhouse gases after all. The good folks in Tennessee can probably tell you a thing or two about the ash. Emphasis mine below.

Coal combustion waste, or coal ash, is the solid waste byproduct created when coal is burned. One million railroad cars could be filled with the amount of coal ash produced from coal combustion in the United States each year. When coal combustion waste is disposed in a dump site — usually a mine, landfill, waste pond or out in the open in a sand-and-gravel pit — the toxins from the ash can leach into the groundwater and surface water, often migrating to the drinking water. In many areas, where residents get their water from wells, those toxins dissolve directly into the drinking water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s own research, coal ash dumping can lead to higher rates of cancer, developmental problems in children and adverse effects in women of child-bearing age. Despite the fact that coal ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, selenium, beryllium, and other toxic metals, the EPA has yet to categorize coal ash as hazardous waste. In addition, coal ash has been found to be up to 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste, due to the concentrations of uranium and thorium that increase 10-fold after coal is burned. [Washington Independent]

If you have previously swallowed the Kool-Aid about clean coal, you can try to spit it up or tell me what you think. I think "clean coal" is bullshit.
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