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Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future - A Radio Documentary

Surface miners in West Virginia.
Erika Celeste
Environment Report
Surface miners in West Virginia.

This documentary is an in-depth look at the future of coal in this country.

The Environment Report explores the role that coal plays in our lives and in the lives of those who depend on coal mining for a living.

Can coal truly be a viable option in the new green economy?

Listen to the Documentary:



Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (transcript)


It’s so easy, flip on a light switch, turn on the TV, fire up the computer.  The power is there, but nearly half of that power comes from coal.  We burn coal in our power plants and in some industry, but today we’re learning more about the hidden costs of burning coal to our health, to the land, and to the climate.

In reality today, there is no such thing as clean coal

President Obama: “Why aren’t we figuring out how to sequester the carbon’s from coal, clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent

Our livelihood depends on coal; you can’t get a job anywhere else if the coal shuts down.”

I’m Lester Graham with The Environment Report.  For the next hour we’ll follow the fight over the future of coal from the coal mines and coal fields to the lighted halls of Washington D.C.  Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future.  First, the news.

Part 1

“And like a good sign from the heavens, is the smoke from these mills”

The industrial age was powered by coal.  The steam locomotives, the steam powered factories, the steel and iron foundries and heat for homes all found a cheap, abundant fuel source in coal.  And America had plenty of it.  At one time or another 38 states mined coal.

But it wasn’t until a development in this building that the demand for coal really took off.

I’m in the laboratory of Thomas Edison.  The Menlo Park lab, originally in New Jersey, now sits in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford in Dearborn Michigan.  It was in this building the first light bulbs were created. 

“When I look around at the resources that the electrical field today, I feel that I would be glad to begin again my work as an electrician, an inventor, in this day of electricity”

Of course, Thomas Edison gets credit for the light bulb, but fewer people know he also built the first electric generating power plant.  Edison’s Pearl Street Station in New York City generated the electricity to keep those early light bulbs glowing, and that generating station was powered by coal.

A lot more electric appliances came out of this lab and many others, and the demand for electricity has grown ever since… and much of that power still comes from coal.

But even in those early days, the soot and emissions from the Pearl Street Station caused complaints from neighbors, and power companies soon learned to build their power plants away from town and build transmission lines to get the electricity back to the cities.

Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future comes from The Environment Report and is underwritten from a grant by the Joyce Foundation.

I’m Lester Graham; the coal pouring out of this rail car had a five day journey across the country.  We’re at the power plant for Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.  This coal arrives by train and by truck in the thousands of tons from the Appalachian region. 

Garry Mill is the operations manager at this power plant.  “We’re just looking at a chunk of coal here that I picked up off the ground.  It’s black, it’s a little bit dirty, it’s a fossil fuel, it’s stuff that’s been in the ground for millions of years.”

Even before the dinosaurs roamed, coal comes from giant trees and leafy ferns that grew on a planet that was hot and humid year round.  When those giant plants died and started rotting, they formed a soggy material called peat.  Over those millions of years, that peat was compressed by layers of water and dirt that piled on top of it.  And it was superheated by the Earths’ core below.  Pressure and heat turned the peat into coal.  Coal miners sometimes call coal black diamond.

Bulldozer operators plow the lumps coal into three giant piles towering 60 feet.  And in the US, nearly half of our electricity comes from plants just like this one.  We Americans, on average, use about 20 pounds of coal a day per person.  Every light in your house and at work, your ipod, the time you spend on Facebook, your morning coffee, the cold beer in the fridge, your laundry, your dishes, your cell phone.  You burn coal.

At this power plant, chunks of coal are ground into a fine powder that’s blown into the 2,000 degree furnace where it boils water.

As the water boils, we collect the steam.  The steam gets piped to steam turbines; the spinning turbine is attached by a shaft to a generator.  And the spinning generator then produces the electricity that supplies campus.

It’s still pretty much the same process that Thomas Edison came up with.  It’s only 40 percent efficient; that is only 40 percent of the energy stored in the coal actually becomes electricity.  But coal’s cheap, there’s lots of it.  Scientists estimate the world still has about a trillion tons of coal left.  And more than a quarter of it is right here in the US.

I’m standing in front of the Gillespie Illinois High School.  The team name at this high school?  The Miners.  The big festival in this town every year is Black Diamond Days.  Coal has been, and is, a big part of the community.  Just a few miles up the road is one of the last remaining coal mines in this area; Shay Number One.  I’m going to take you into that coal mine and talk about the future of coal for this area.

To get to the layer of coal in this mine, you have to take a freight elevator down 350 feet into the earth. 

“This drops 350 feet.”

As we step out, there are a few lights near the elevator, but it can get dark, I mean really dark.  Absence-of-light dark.  Soon, we have to turn on our headlamps.

The walls of the mine are not black like coal, they’re white.  The walls are covered in a lime slurry to keep the coal dust down.

For decades, this mine was the Monterrey mine owned by Exxon-Mobil, which closed it.  About 300 miners lost their jobs.  I know that because this area is my hometown area.

When I grew up, when someone got a mining job we knew they were going to get paid wages far above the average income in these parts.  Most of the county is farmland; maybe you could get a job at the dairy or drive an hour or more to St. Louis, Missouri for a job.  But over the last 60 years, there have been fewer and fewer mining jobs.  Machinery replaced men.  Decades ago small mines like the near-by Little Dog mine and the South mine in my hometown of Carlinville were closed down.  When this big mine, Monterrey, closed people wondered if there would ever be mining jobs here again.  But it did open again, last year, as Shay Number One.  About 65 people work here now— not the hundreds who did in the past.

Shay Number One mine manager, Roger Dennison says even with fewer people working here, people are pretty happy about the mine opening again.

They want their coal mine back.  They’re proud of their coal mine and there heritage.  And, you know, it’s the economics.  I mean, every place you see it happen and they go away, jobs and things like that really hurts the economy.  So, yeah, they were definitely pumped up about this coal mine reopening.”

As we travel through the tunnel, the lime dust that is kicked up makes you want to sneeze.  We’re riding in a low slung cart through dark tunnels where coal has already been mined.  We pass orange sort-of-squat dump trucks, the drivers ring bells to warn miners in the dark that they’re approaching.  Each is loaded down with about 15 tons of coal headed to a conveyer belt which takes the fossil fuel above ground.  There the coal is washed and loaded onto railroad cars.

These guys are using a mining style called room and pillar.  They take some of the coal, but they leave enough so that the ground above doesn’t sink.  Even with this room and pillar method that leaves coal behind, Roger Dennison says there’s plenty here.

This mine’s a huge reserve.  Any coal mine, not just this one, the limitations to any coal mine are economics.”

We rely on these miners to keep the lights on.  We burn close to a billion tons of coal every year in the U.S.  And we’ll probably be able to keep that habit up for many years to come.  The Energy Information Administration says that we have 240 years of coal left.  But even the government can see that’s a very rough estimate.  There are critics who challenge the idea that we have plenty of coal, Richard Heinburg studies energy for the Post Carbon Institute, it’s a green think tank. He says the estimated amount under the ground is not the only thing that counts.

We tend to get the cheap, easy stuff first.  It’s the low hanging fruit phenomenon.  Then after a certain point it becomes impossible to increase the rate in which we get the stuff out of the ground.  The production peaks and then tails off for a long time afterwards.”

Heinburg predicts mining companies will have to invest more money to keep finding new coal and that will raise coal prices.  Not in a couple hundred years, but in the not too distant future.

If we’re going on the assumption that there is plenty of coal out there for many decades to come, at current prices, and we build infrastructure accordingly, and then a couple of decades from now coal starts becoming much more expensive and scare, we will have gotten ourselves into a very difficult place.  Sort of like what we’ve done with oil.

Heinburg says there’s another problem: coal burning plants emit huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is making the climate change problem worse.  Right now, government and power companies are looking for new ways to pump that carbon pollution into the ground instead.  Later on this hour we’ll hear about a company that’s testing to see if this idea will work.  But as far as Heinburg and a lot of other people are concerned, all this talk of relying on coal for a couple hundred of years… that’s a big bet that could have a high cost if we’re wrong.


Back at the Shay mine number one, as we watch the machinery chew through the fossilized plants in this coal scene, these miners will tell you they’re thinking about the future of coal and an energy strategy that reduces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Roger Dennison says in the neat term, coal is going to play a part, and he hopes in the long term, there is still a place for coal because it’s plentiful and it’s domestic.

What’s three decades from now going to look like for power?  Coal’s going to have to be apart of that.  It’s the base load; it’s probably 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. right now and wind and I believe in the balanced energy, and we’ve talked, but what’s the next technology, you know?  For right now in the near term, in the future, coal has to be there.

LG: And these miners hope the good paying mining jobs.  So will we keep using coal?  If you ask the CEO of one of the largest coal companies in the U.S., the answer is we don’t really have a choice.  Stephen Leer heads up Arch Coal Company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.  He says the governments own data indicate, as a nation, we’ll be using more and more electricity.  And just to maintain nuclear energy’s share of power generation:

We would need to add somewhere between 30 and 35 new nuclear units to maintain the 20 percent market share that nuclear currently produces.  And you sit there and say ‘do we think it’s realistic that in 21 years we will build 30 new nuclear unit?’

And both the coal mining industry and the power industry say there’s no way we can build enough wind turbines and solar powered plants to keep up with that kind of growing demand.  Let alone replace natural gas, nuclear, or coal powered electric generating plants.  They say we’ll have to burn more coal burning power plants.  So, does mean we’re stuck with coal?  And if we are, can we do a better job of mining it?  Environmentalists are not thrilled about coal mining of any kind, but the type of underground mining that’s going on at the Shay Number One mine, the room and pillar mining, doesn’t cause as much environmental damage as strip mining in the west, or blowing off mountain tops for coal as is done in the Appalachians in the east.  By the way, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, Stephen Leer’s company, wants to begin the largest mountaintop removal mining project ever proposed for the Appalachians. 

Next up, we’ll travel to West Virginia and we’ll hear about the controversy in coal country there.  Mountain top removal mining has meant some good jobs there - and it’s meant living with environmental devastation for others. 

You think it’s hard to live without a paycheck?  Paycheck’s not important when you don’t have water for your children.

You’re listening to a special documentary by The Environment Report – Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future.   We’ll be back.

Part 2

((Music Sting))

((Sound of coal train))

West Virginia.  Appalachian Mountains.  This is eastern coal country.  In the state capitol, Charleston, you can see loads of coal moving by train, truck, by river barge.   Only Wyoming produces more coal than West Virginia.

Bill Raney is the President of the West Virginia Coal Association:

We truly have been and continue to be the powerhouse for the country.  And everyone ought to be very proud about that.  Because there’s people in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia and New York City that are able to use their hair dryers, coffee makers , and their computers because people in West Virginia are either digging coal or their supporting the mining of that coal.”

Just like Illinois, West Virginia has underground coal mines.  But the mining that’s caused trouble in this state is mountaintop removal mining.

((Sound of mountaintop removal mining))

Mining companies call the practice surface mining.  First they strip the mountains of their trees and soil.  The tops are blown off using dynamite.  Big earth moving machines pushup the rubble and dump the debris into a valley.   Then they move in and scoop up the thin seam of coal. 

It’s a common practice in the Appalachian Mountains.  Thousands of square miles of forests have been cleared.  The dumped into valleys and the coal hulled away.  And in the process, miles of headwater stream have been buried by the rock and debris. Last year, a New York Times investigative report revealed tap water in the region contains heavy metals and other chemicals at concentrations the federal government said could contribute to caner, damaged kidneys, and damaged nervous systems.

Lorelei Scarbro grew up in Lincoln County West Virginia with eight brothers and sisters.  Coal mining was a way of life.  Her husband was killed by Black Lung, a disease that strikes underground miners.

She lives at the base of Coal River Mountain.  She and many others have been fighting to save the mountain from the coal companies’ dynamite.  She says once a mining company moves in – it’s like living in a war zone.

There are people throughout Appalachia that live in the shadow of mountaintop removal sites and they’re feeling not only the explosions, but experiencing the effects of that.  Such as the dust, especially silicon, the rock dust that attaches itself to the insides of your lungs and causes silicosis.  I don’t understand it.”

But most people don’t complain.  Coal mining jobs are important here.  There is not much else.  Today mining companies are required to contour the hills and replant them with vegetation when they’re done.  Those who reclaim the land say it works.  And that they’re complying with all environmental laws.  Others say those laws are too weak.  And it’s impossible to restore a mountaintop that was there for millions of years after you’ve blown off the top.

A group of scientists reviewed all the studies done on the effects of this kind of mining. The work was published in the journal Science.  They concluded - mountaintop mining cause’s significant damage.  They said trees often don’t grow back on reclaimed sites.  For people living around these mines - they cited increased rates of mortality.  People die earlier from lung cancer, or chronic heart, or diseased kidneys.  They scientists in the article called for a stop to mountaintop removal mining.

Lorelei Scarbro says people often ask her the same question over and over again – if it’s so bad - why don’t you just leave?

And while that may be an option for some people, it certainly is not for a lot of us.  My husband is buried in the family cemetery next door and I’m not leaving.  That would be the hardest thing to do.”

People are connected to these mountains.  For most of them, leaving is out of the question.  And that goes for the people who mine the mountains too.

Right now - coal drives the economy of West Virginia.  People depend on coal for jobs - good paying jobs.  The average salary for a coal mining job in the state is 68 thousand dollars - twice the average of other jobs in the state.  We met up with some of these coal miners after their shift.  They sat down to talk to us at a Pizza Hut in Logan County, West Virginia.

Robert Grier.  I’m a surface miner.  I drive a rock truck at a surface mine.  In a way were some of the biggest environmentalists that you would ever want to meet because we don’t want these mountaintops tore down and just left destroyed we want them put back also.  We get out on our four-wheelers.  We ride around.  We enjoy the scenery.  We enjoy these mountains.  We’re just not a bunch of terrorists that just come in a blow something up and just leave it that way.”

Donald Kennedy.  Rock truck driver on a surface job.  If you read the newspapers daily they still got us dumping this rock in the rivers and in the streams.  That’s so far from the truth.  Years ago when surface mining started in the sixties, it was rough.  But today there are so many laws, state and federal laws, you couldn’t do it if you wanted to do it.”

Sonny Adkins.  I run a dozer on a surface job.  Our livelihood depends on coal.  You can’t get a job anywhere else if the coal shuts down.

Joe Hicks.  I’m a dozer operator on the surface mine.  We’re just out to make an honest living.  Everybody makes us out to be thugs, outlaws.  We don’t deserve the image that they give us.  We really don’t.”

It’s clear that many in this state are divided over its future.  Both sides in the mountaintop mining debate feel they’re misunderstood.  Sometimes the debate spills over – like it did in capitol city Charleston.  Protesters against mountaintop mining organized a rally in front of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.

The West Virginia Coal Association called for a counter-protest to what they called “liberal enviro-whacko’s rally.”

(((SOUND of INTRO and Truck horns)))

The coal mining supporters not only showed up but they brought in some big trucks, horns blaring to try to disrupt the protest speakers at the rally.

The Coal industry’s message was simple.  Coal means jobs.  Jobs mean paychecks.

But the protestors against mountaintop coal mining say there are more important things.

One of those speakers was Maria Gunnoe.  She’s a coal miner’s daughter who’s worked against the environmental damage of blowing off the tops of Appalachian Mountains. 

I challenge you .You think it’s hard to live without a paycheck?  Try living with nothing to give your children to drink.  Paycheck’s not important when you don’t have water to give your children.”

Maria Gunnoe has been there.  She lives in a valley just downhill from a debris fill. 

At the counter-rally, many of the coal mining supporters did not want to talk to news people.  One guy who would talk is Gary Finley.  He’s from Ohio and sells equipment to the coal mining industry. 

I don’t believe the people in this country realize that when they go into their homes and turn on their light switch and the electric comes on, if we don’t mine coal, that’s gonna be - it’s done.”

The protest was a lot of passionate speakers on both sides.  What irritated the coal mining supporters more than anything seemed to be the idea that outsiders were coming to West Virginia to tell them what to do.  And the liberal outsider that aggravated them most was environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.   Kennedy calls fossil fuels like coal a deadly addiction that’s wrecking the country

We need to figure out ways to power our country that don’t compromise the aspirations of future generations, don’t compromise their potential for prosperity, for wholesome, dignified communities.”

In the end… nothing was really settled at this protest.

But the debate over the future of coal is growing louder.  In West Virginia - some see a bright future in renewable, sustainable energy and preserved forested mountains, while others feel their lives and their livelihoods are threatened.

((Music Sting))

You’re listing to Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future.  From The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

When we burn coal, there are higher costs than what we pay on our electric bills.  There are hidden costs that we end up paying.  A decade ago I covered a project studying asthma among children in Detroit.  I talked with Sylvester Foot who vividly remembered his grandson, Quinzel’s, first serious asthma attack.

I rushed him out there and took him to a doctor.  He seemed like he was going to pass away.  He was just gasping for air.  Very frightening.  Very very frightening.

Asthma is aggravated by pollution emitted from smokestack industries, including smog and soot.  Although may coal burning power plants had reduced particulate matter, soot, the soot problem wasn’t gone then and it’s not gone today.

Tim Davonich was the researcher at the University of Michigan working on the asthma project at the time.

The larger particles are being removed from smokestacks and not being emitted into the atmosphere.  But what’s leaving is actually, uh, a higher percentage of fine particles.  And the fine particles are the ones we are concerned about in terms of respiratory disease.  Those are the ones that actually penetrate all the way down into the human lung and can cause respiratory effects.”

Not just the lungs, some particles are so small that they can even get into the blood stream.  The EPA links particle pollution to asthma attacks, decreased lung function, and even premature death for people with heart or lung problems.

Burning coal releases other pollutants including sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain and nitrogen oxide which leads to smog. 

And then, there’s mercury.  Mercury can cause brain damage.

Mercury occurs in the environment naturally.  But coal burning power plants are the biggest man-made source of mercury.  The mercury gets into the environment, into the water, into fish, we eat the fish, and the mercury gets into us.

Some people who fish are aware there are concerns about pollution in fish.  A few summers ago I caught up with Mark Ford testing some new gear on a Chicago marina just off Lake Michigan.  He had a pretty good idea of what to do to reduce his exposure to some contaminates when he prepared fish.

First thing you want to do is cut off all excess fat to get away from a lot of the chemical pollutants that’s not in the actual meat of the fish.  That’s where most of the chemicals lie, in the fat.  So you cut that off and get to cookin’!

Trimming the fat will reduce exposure to many chemicals, cooking reduces other, but mercury is in the flesh of fish.  And no amount of rinsing, boiling, or frying gets rid of it.  It can cause babies to be born with smaller heads.  It can cause nervous system damage and lower IQ in small children if women of childbearing age or children eat too much fish.

Michael Carvan is with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes Water Institute. He says 15 percent of all women of childbearing age have high enough mercury that their fetuses will be contaminated mercury.

"Even at really low levels, around one part per million, you're talking about some subtle coordination difficulties, you're talking about problems with memory and problems with neuro-processing and IQ deficits."

The federal government has done little beyond warning women of childbearing age and children not to eat fish more than once or twice a week.  Some states have taken up the issue, putting restrictions on mercury emissions.

((Music Sting))

A group of doctors has issued a report called "Coal's Assault On Human Health." It was put out by the Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report says coal pollutants contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Dr. Alan Lockwood is the main author of the report.  He’s a Professor of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine at the University at Buffalo.  And he joins us now.

Graham: You want us to make big cuts in the pollutants caused by burning coal. But the Environmental Protection Agency has decided, ‘well, we are at a level where these exposures are safe to the public.’ Why do you dispute that?

Dr. Alan Lockwood: No one has been able to demonstrate a level below which these pollutants are really completely safe. So, the general consensus is that the lower they are, the less likely they are to effect health in an adverse manner.

Graham: This report also covers health effects due to climate change.  How might global warming affect our health?

Dr. Lockwood: Well, first of all, it would change the temperature. So, more people would have heat-related illnesses. Insect vectors that carry diseases like malaria and dengue will increase their distribution. The possibility of reduced crop yields and, secondarily, is starvation.  So, all of those things add up to making this an important element of the coal story.

Graham: Dr. Alan Lockwood is the principal author of the report Coal’s Assault On Human Health from the Physicians For Social Responsibility.

((Music Sting))

The hidden costs of burning coal beyond smokestack emissions.  When coal is burned, it leaves behind ash – coal ash – or fly ash.  It took a major environmental disaster to make Americans aware that coal ash can be a problem.

“People in Roan County, Tennessee,still aren’t sure how bad a disaster they are facing after a coal ash spill has covered neighborhoods and choked local rivers.”

December 26 of 2008, the story that led the NBC nightly news, was about a power plant in Tennessee had stored its coal ash in a pond next to the plant for decades.  The dam holding it back collapsed.  More than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded the town of Kingston, Tennessee.  It tore out trees, ripped houses from their foundations.  The ash sludge poured out over hundreds of acres of land and poured into a river.  Coal ash can contain several toxic heavy metals - like arsenic, lead, and mercury.  In some parts of the spill the sludge dried and got carried in the wind. 

Diana Anderson has lived near the power plant for forty years.  She never worried about it.  But since the spill, she’s begun to notice changes in her health.

"My sinuses are irritated, I have a raspy throat, and I do a lot of coughing and my head hurts and I feel very, very, very fatigued."

The Tennessee Valley Authority operates the Kingston power plant.  The TVA issued a report on the health impacts of the spill a year after it happened.  The report says quote, “any dust that may have been inhaled could have aggravated symptoms in sensitive populations such as asthma and emphysema.”

That coal ash spill is still being cleaned up.  And the EPA is reconsidering how coal ash should be handled at the many plants that store it on site.

((Music Sting))

Public heath officials and environmentalists have been fighting for decades to restrict acid rain, and the smog and the soot that’s a problem with burning coal.  But in recent years, the biggest concern has been carbon dioxide.  Burning coal is the single largest source of that greenhouse gas that’s contributing to climate change.  But we really don’t think about our connection to coal.  We turn on a light and few of us think ‘I’m not burning coal; I’m contributing to climate change.’  I mean, how much coal do you have to burn to turn on a light bulb?

That question bugged me.  So I decided to get a piece of coal and put the question to Ezra Hausman in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He's the Vice President of Synapse Energy Economics.

Graham:So, I have my coal.  I haven’t weighed it, but for this discussion let’s say it’s a pound of coal.    I guess the first thing I’d like to know is… about how long would a 100 watt incandescent light stay on with the power generated from burning this pound of coal?

Hausman: Well, you haven’t told me where you got that pound of coal.  It makes a big difference whether it’s from the Appalachian region or the western region, such as Wyoming, in the United States.  The Appalachian coal, eastern coal, would burn a light bulb for about 10 or 12 hours.  A pound of western coal would only burn it for about five or six hours.

Graham: Coal, a good portion of coal, is pure carbon.  What kind of CO2 emissions would we expect from this one pound of coal?

Hausman: Well, a pound of coal is, let’s say about half carbon, so that would be a half a pound of carbon.  But for every atom of carbon, you add two atoms of oxygen from the air.  So for every 12 grams of carbon, you get 44 grams of carbon dioxide.  That’s just basically how the chemistry works out when you burn carbon and oxygen; it produces carbon dioxide in that radio.

Graham: So this one pound of coal would emit, by weight, more CO2 than I have in my hand here?

Hausman: That’s right.  It would end up emitting around two pounds of CO2.

Graham: Ezra Hausman with the Synapse Energy Economics.

Keep in mind, we’ve been talking about one pound, the average American uses enough electricity to burn 20 pounds of coal everyday.

((Music Sting))

You’re listening to a special documentary by The Environment Report.  We’ll be back.

Part 3

((Music Sting))

You’re listening to Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future.  I’m Lester Graham.

Well, we’ve made the point coal pollutes.  Not as much as it used to.  Some traditional pollutants, such as soot or particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides have been reduced, by 77 percent, since the 1970 Clean Air Act was passed by Congress.

Although the government forced it to reduce some of the pollution, the coal burning power industry likes to brag about the progress and encourages you to believe in the future of “clean coal.”

((American Coalition for Clean Coal advertisement))

"I believe. I believe. We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most abundant fuel cleanly and responsibly. We can and we will. Clean coal: America's power"

Joe Lucas is the man behind that ad. He’s with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Lucas says the meaning of the phrase ‘clean coal’ is always evolving.

“Ah, the use of the term ‘clean coal,’ it is a term of art. Up until now it has been technology that has reduced traditional pollution emissions and increased the efficiency of power plants and going forward we’re rapidly approaching the point to where it will be technologies for capture and storage of carbon.”

But right now, except for some small experiments we’ll talk about a little later, coal-burning power plants don’t capture carbon dioxide.

And like we’ve pointed out, carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.  That’s why environmentalists scoff at the coal industry’s use of ‘clean coal.’

((Cohen Brothers advertisement))

"Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word 'clean,' to make it sound like the cleanest clean there is! (coughing) Clean Coal is supported by the coal industry, the most trusted name in coal!”

The guy behind that ad is Brian Hardwick. He’s the spokesman for the “This is Reality” campaign.

In reality today there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ There is no commercial coal plant that captures its carbon pollution not to mention the other environmental impacts that the coal industry has - from burning coal and the runoff and the extraction of coal. So, we launched an effort to try to bring out the truth about coal in response to the marketing campaign that the coal industry had so that people could come to their own conclusions about whether or not they thought coal was indeed clean.

The problem is we keep using more and more electricity.  Clean energy in the form of wind turbines and solar power plants are being built, but so far not nearly enough to make a major difference.  Power experts say we need to build more coal-burning power plants.  And politicians… are listening.  During the Presidential campaign 2008, candidate Barack Obama told people at a rally in Virginia, that we need to find a way to really get to ‘clean coal.’

Why aren’t we figuring how to sequester the carbons from coal? Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent.” (applause)

And President Obama has followed up on that. In the stimulus plan, 3.4 billion dollars was set aside to find ways to make coal cleaner.  Emit less soot or particulate matter, less sulfuric oxides or what the bureaucrats call SOx or nitrogen oxides, NOx.  And of course emit fewer greenhouse gases.

The President’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, is a big proponent of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar. But he also says we do need to find a way to use coal.

Right now as we’re using coal it’s not clean. But, I firmly believe that we should invest very heavily on strategies that can take a large fraction of the carbon dioxide out of coal as well as the SOx the NOx, the mercury, particulate matter.”

But until that technology is in place, ‘clean coal’ is no more than what the coal industry calls an “evolving term of art.”

((Music Sting))

While clean coal is being debated by industry lobbyists and environmental activists, the carbon capture equipment is only being tested.

A big announcement has the state and members of the coal industry very excited about the future of the states most valuable resource”

The big announcement on Clarksburg, West Virginia’s WBOY TV is about that test at American Electric Powers Mountaineer Power Plant.

The Mountaineer Power Plant in Mason County is going to be the first facility in the world to use carbon capture and sequestration technology to cut down on the levels of carbon dioxide that that plant emits”

This is actually the second facility; there were small scale tests at a plant in Wisconsin.  This West Virginia experiment is getting more attention because it’s bigger.

We asked Shawn Allee to look into this further… so Shawn, is this test at the Mountaineer plant living up to the hype?

Allee: Well, they’re running tests that could actually make so called ‘clean coal’ technology a reality.  You know that carbon capture and sequestration technology made in that report we heard earlier is key.  AEP wants to capture carbon dioxide from the power plant, then they want to bury the gas deep underground.  That’s the sequestration part they were talking about.  If all of this works, it would solve the entire industry’s carbon dioxide problem.

Graham: That’d be pretty significant if it works.

Allee: But you know, American Electric Power is kind of keeping its cool about the test.

The tension we’re fighting against is the fact that you can’t go from concepts on paper all the way to commercial scale in one step.”

Allee: That’s Gary Spitznogle; he runs an engineering division for AEP.

Graham: So they’re starting this project out kind of small.

Allee: Definitely, Spitznogle says it’s because AEP needs to validate carbon capture and sequestration.

Validation, it’s kind of that intermediate step between what is truly research work and full commercial scale.

Allee: The idea is to take the technology for a spin and then keep running larger and larger tests.

Graham: So, how big are we talking about right now at Mountaineer?

Allee: Well, Spitznogle is capturing and sequestering less than two percent of the plants emissions right now.  But in the next few years they hope to expand to about 20 percent of the Mountaineer plant’s capacity.

Graham: A few years to 20 percent, that’s longer than I imagined.  So, what is slowing things down?

Allee: Well, there is a fundamental problem with carbon capture and sequestration, you know, it wastes coal.  Spitznogle calls this waste ‘parasitic load,’ as in parasite.

Because it’s taking the power it’s consuming from the generating plant you’re controlling, it’s a parasite to that power plant.

Allee: It sounds so nefarious.


You know, and the reason it’s such a focus, is that it’s, no matter what technology you look at, the number’s large.”

Allee: Right now the federal government has a guess about the amount of power that might be required to run carbon capture and sequestration equipment.  They’re thinking it’s about 30 percent.  Um, that means it might take 30 percent more coal to generate the same amount of power for customers.  So Spitznogel is running the equipment to see exactly how low this parasitic load figure can get.  And there are a lot of people who say we need to find this out soon.

The overarching concern, that I would have today, is urgency.

Allee: That’s Ernest Moniz, he runs MIT’s Energy Institute.  He also advises President Obama on energy issues.  He says if power companies don’t get a handle on parasitic load; we are in for higher utility bills.

Graham: What do you mean by higher?

Allee: Well, again, companies would be charging customers for extra coal they would have to burn for this equipment.  But that’s just the beginning, in mean talks about how companies would have to pay to install the equipment or finance it.  One government estimate is that customers who depend on coal would see their bills rise at least 70 percent compared to today’s prices.

Graham: 70 percent!

Allee: That’s right, and that’s why politicians from coal states want the federal government to foot the bill for all this to develop and install this equipment.  Ernest Moniz, that guy from MIT, says to avoid all this, we need bigger tests of carbon capture and sequestration and we need more of them.

We are pushing up again the envelope and we’ve got to do it.  If we are going to be serious about using our extensive coal reserves, in a time of carbon constraints, well then we just have to demonstrate this technology.

Allee: So Lester, there’s a lot riding on tests like this one at the Mountaineer Power Plant.  And we’ve got to figure out whether ‘clean coal’ technology really works and whether we can afford it.

Graham: We’ll, we’re going to talk to a guy who is monitoring this.  Thanks for getting us up to speed Shawn.

Allee: You’re welcome Lester.

That guy is Hank Courtright.  He’s with the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute which is monitoring the Mountaineer carbon capture experiment…

Courtright: Uh, we think it has great progress, it’s really the second step of a multi-step process that we’re doing.  We just concluded a project up in Wisconsin on a smaller scale, the same type of technology, and it was very successful; captured about 90-plus percent of the CO2 that passed through it.  The idea here is that we’re scaling it up ten-times larger at the Mountaineer plant and so far the early results seem very good.  And we’ll continue to test that over a year-plus to see how it does produce.

Graham: Shawn told us there’s this concern about the parasitic load, the 30 percent more coal it takes to power this equipment, and the cost of the equipment itself.  So, what are the costs going to end up being on our electric bill?

Courtright: Well, what we’re trying to get down to Lester is that that parasitic load gets down to into, let’s say, the ten to 15 percent range.  When you get to that level it means that the cost of electricity out of a coal plant might be about 25 percent higher than it is.  But right now, coal is basically the cheapest form of producing electricity.  So it still ends up as being an economical option even though you might be increasing the cost of that coal plant by about 25 percent.

Graham: If they can accomplish that with this experiment, how long will it take to get this technology built into the bulk of coal burning power plants?

Courtright:  Well, you’re going to be working over this for several decades really.  Our thinking is around 2020; you’re going to be able to have most new coal power plants use the carbon capture and storage.  And you might be able to retrofit about, maybe about, 20 percent, 25 percent, of the existing plants in the United States with this type of technology.

Graham: If we can’t capture carbon economically, or at the other end we can’t find a way to sequester this carbon underground, or whatever method they might come-up with, what’s next?

Courtright: Well that causes some difficulties because right here in the United States coal’s used to produce about half our electricity.  So, you’re into a difficult situation that if you wanted to significantly reduce the CO2 emissions, to improve the climate change issue, then you have to be looking at a combination of probably nuclear power and a very large rollout of renewable energy.  Both of those would have to take the lion’s share of the electricity production.  But our hope is that we can get this working because it’s not only here in the U.S. you need it, on fossil fuels, on coal and gas, but also on places like China, Russia, India, Australia… countries that have very large reserves of coal and hope to use those natural resources.

Graham: Hank Courtright is with the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute which is monitoring the experimental carbon capture and sequestration project at American Electric Powers Mountaineer plant in New Haven, West Virginia.

Again, as Shawn Allee reported, the equipment to capture and sequester CO2 will add to the operating costs in either rate payers or tax payers will end up footing that bill.

In the industries involving coal, CO2 capture and sequestration is not the only game in town.  When I was down in the mine in Illinois, miners such as Roger Dennison kept on mentioning coal gasification.  Just about every conversation it came up.

I believe coal gasification is a step in between there because A)  it’s clean and B) there’s all sorts of by-products that come from that that can be used, whether it be hydrogen in the future or this or that.

Coal gasification is not new.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s coal gasification plants were fairly common place.  Synthetic gas was used for gas lights in homes and in street lamps.

Edison’s light bulb and electricity and natural gas put those coal gasification plants out of business.  But now, coal gasification might be coming back.

Duke-Energy-Indiana is building a coal gasification plant in Edwardsport, Indiana.  We caught up with a spokesman for the company, Lew Middleton, in Indianapolis.

Graham: So, taking a sort of black fossilized rock and turning it into a gas is a bit of a mystery to me.  How do you do that?

Middleton: Well, it is kind of mysterious to me too.  In very simple terms what we do with the coal is we crush it into a very fine powder, almost like talcum powder.  And then we feed that powdered coal into a reactor and we mix it with heat and with steam.  By heating it up in this syn-gas reactor then we’re able to chemically break apart the components in the coal and we break it into hydrogen and carbon monoxide and some other components as well.  And purify it and then we get synthetic gas that’s ready to go into the turbine that turns the generator.

Graham: Now, in this coal gasification process, is it any easier to pull put polluting chemicals such as sulfur and mercury, or reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases?

Middleton: It’s much easier to pull out the nitrogen oxide, the sulfur dioxide, and the mercury.  As far as the carbon dioxide is concerned, the emissions of carbon dioxide from a coal gasification plant such as this are less on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, or per-unit-of-energy-generated, than what they are from a normal coal-burning power plant.

Graham:  How much less?

Middleton: Well, about 45 percent less, as a matter-of-fact.  That’s what we calculate our CO2 emissions to be, to be 45 percent less.  Again, on a per-kilowatt-hour basis.

Graham: Lew Middleton with Duke-Energy-Indian which is building a coal gasification plant in Edwardsport, Indiana.  A company called Tanaska is planning another coal gasification plant in Taylorville, Illinois.

The power industry and the coal mining industry, and those coal miners who’d like to keep their good-paying jobs, are putting a lot of hope into gasification and that carbon capture and sequestration test.  The problem is it will take decades before we get to the point we can reduce CO2 emissions from burning coal.  Climate scientists say we don’t have decades.  We need to do something now.  Or our world will change really fast.

Building wind turbines and solar power plants has been helping, and will help in the future, but we keep using more and more power.  One-point-eight percent more each year in the U.S.  The only way to reduce that twenty pounds of coal a day we’re burning right now is to use less electricity, especially during peak demand hours. Flipping off that light switch when you don’t need it, buying a compact fluorescent bulb, turning off computers when we’re not using them.  Being more energy efficient will help reduce how much coal we’re burning… how much greenhouse gas and other pollution we’re putting into the air.

But even if we learn to burn coal cleanly in the coming decades, we’re also going to have to learn how to get it out of the ground with less environmental damage.

Coal really does have a hazy future.

((Music Sting))

Back at Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park labs, I’m reminded of a quote often brought up these days.

In James Newtown’s book, Uncommon Friends, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison were discussing the future in what turned out to be their last meeting.  Edison told the industry giants, “We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy: sun, wind, and tide.”

It seems even from the early days of electric generation, coal was seen as a temporary solution. 

Firestone noted that oil and coal couldn’t last forever and wondered why there was not research into harnessing the wind.   Ford said there was enormous potential in tides, but scientists had only been playing with the question so far.

Thomas Edison ended the conversation saying “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.  What a sources of power!  I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.  I wish I had more years left!”

That meeting was in March of 1931, Thomas Edison died later that same year.  Eighty years later and solar energy, tidal energy, wind energy – all are just now getting the serious study needed to begin the process of replacing coal.


“Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future” comes from The Environment Report.  This documentary was made possible by the Joyce Foundation. 

Written by Mark Brush, Rebecca Williams, Lester Graham and Shawn Allee. 

Produced by Mark Brush and Rebecca Williams.

Executive Producer Tamar Charney.

Additional reporting by Erika Celeste, Sandra Sleight-Brennan, Julie Halpert, and Matt Shafer-Powell. 

Production coordinator: Jessi Ziegler.

Production assistance from Erin Kelly and Katherine Kelly Martin.

Narrated by Lester Graham.

Special thanks to Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford and the Thomas Edison National Historic Park.

Music was composed by Paul Brill. 

“Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future” is a production of Michigan Radio, a public broadcasting service of the University of Michigan. 

(Audio gliss)

Jenn White:The Environment Report: bringing environmental news down to Earth.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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