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The Challenge

Coal  Strip Mining Practices,  Stackgas Pollution,  Sulfur Dioxide & Nitrous Oxide, Mercury
           
Ash Pond and Mine Tailing Pollution

Coal represents perhaps the largest challenge in terms of stopping and reversing global warming.

Coal is dirty. When coal is burned lots of pollutants go into the air, while ash is left behind indefinitely in stagnating ponds. In addition, during the actual mining of coal, tailings are left untreated and abandoned at strip mining sites. We will pay dearly with taxpayer dollars for the clean up of coal’s toxic waste sites.

This pollution is ongoing and poisons our air, our water and our food. In the short run, we pay with our health, our poisoned lakes and rivers and with our increasingly erratic climate. In the long run, we may sacrifice the habitability of the planet for ourselves and our children.

Strip Mining

Coal is dirty when it is mined. About 67% of U.S. coal is now extracted above ground in strip mines (video). Beautiful scenic mountains ((video) about 1000 mountain tops in just 2008) in over 24 states, including West Virginia (video). Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, are being blasted into flattened wastelands with these destructive mining practices.

The strip mining leftovers, called tailings, consist of low grade mining ore. Some tailings are piled directly on surface land. Other tailings are soaked in waste ponds. These toxic leftovers fill up the once scenic valley communities, contaminating their water supplies with lead, arsenic, mercury and other hazardous heavy metals.

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Stackgas Pollution

Coal is dirty when it is burned. The burning of even a tiny piece of coal makes very smelly fumes. (See our product: Stinky Rocks to demonstrate this first hand.) Imagine the pollution as large amounts of coal (one billion tons per year in the U.S.) are burned in power plant boilers to make steam!

The fumes from coal power (video) plants trigger asthma attacks and make the attacks worse. Over half a million Americans, including many children suffer from asthma attacks (video), so that coal can remain “cheap.”

Here is the yearly health and mortality data associated with power plant smoke stacks in the United States alone: (Clean Air Task Force, Dirty Air, Dirty Power, Mortality and Health, June, 2004)

     23,600 people die prematurely from fine particle pollution from coal power plants
       2,800 of these are through lung cancer
     38,200 non-fatal heart attacks attributed to power plant pollution
   554,000 asthma attacks are caused by power plant pollution each year
3,000,000 lost work days due to power plant pollution

The vast majority (about 22,000) of the deaths due to small particle pollution could be prevented by the installation of emission controls available now. (Clean Air Task Force Report, 2004)

The worst air pollutants from burning coal, in terms of impact on human health, are sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, soot and mercury.

Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NO) cause not only chronic respiratory problems but also acid rain. These molecules react with water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. Acid rain harms trees, other plants, aquatic animals and outdoor surfaces including buildings.

In spite of The Clean Air Acts (1962, 1977, 1990), these stack gas pollutants are still less than half way through the emissions restrictions needed to return the rainwater in the Northeast to a normal pH.

A cap and trade program was used to limit SO2 stackgas emission and was successful in achieving the goals set for sulfur dioxide emission, but the goals were modest (40% reduction over 20 years). By comparison, this U.S. policy of cap-and-trade was significantly less successful than conventional regulations implemented in the European Union, which saw a decrease of over 70% in SO2 emissions during the same time period.

Note that only 16% of U.S. coal-fired power plants installed scrubbers to limit their sulfur emissions. The remainder met their sulfur dioxide limits by simply switching to low sulfur coal. The key point here is that there were ways for these plants to comply with rising emission restriction and still stay in business.

If the goal is to return the rain water in the Northeast to a clean rain pH of 5.6, then the U.S. emissions control program has some distance to go. Measurements of rain water pH in New York (one of the states most affected by acid rain) show only a modest improvement in acidity over the last twenty years. Specifically, the rain is now at an average pH of 4.6 (up from a pH of 4.2). If the goal is 5.6, twenty years of regulations have achieved only a 30% of normal improvement in rain water pH. They have 70% more to go.

To achieve normal rainwater and improve public health requires a further decrease in "acceptable" levels of SO2 and NO in stackgas emissions. Additionally, Congress would have to remove the loopholes in the law that allowed the oldest coal fired power plants to continue to pollute. These pre-existing power plants were expected to be retired by now and so were excluded from the regulations. They are still in operation. Upgrades to these aging cash-cows were supposed to make them subject to emission regulations, but lax enforcement has allowed these plants to continue polluting.

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1 - The Climate Crisis
2 - Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
3 - The Challenge
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4 - The Solutions
5 - The Lumps of Coal Campaign

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