Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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This news story originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

October 16, 2005

Clean coal push concerns environmental activists

By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff writer

Coalfield state environmentalists are concerned that the latest push for new clean coal plants is ignoring the impact of large-scale mining on mountains, forests, streams and nearby communities.

Activists are also worried that the new coal plants proposed in West Virginia and other states are not all they are cracked up to be.

There is no such thing as clean coal, said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Its dirty when you mine it. Its dirty when you burn it, Rank said. Its dirty when you dispose of the waste. Its just dirty.

Late last month, Friends of the Mountains, a coalition of coal critics, fired off a letter to the editor of OnEarth Magazine. The monthly journal is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group based in Washington, D.C.

Friends of the Mountains was upset by the magazines latest cover story, headlined, Coal Comes Clean(er): There is a way to burn the stuff without toasting the planet.

In its letter, Friends of the Mountains complained about the attachment of the word clean to coal, an oxymoron of the highest degree, and one that further enables the coal industrys destruction of our communities and environment.

In West Virginia, the NRDC joined local environmental groups in at least one of the federal court lawsuits that led to a July 2004 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin to more strictly regulate mountaintop removal mining.

And, as recently as 2001, the NRDC published a report that opposed funding for the federal governments clean coal research program.

The term clean coal is like saying safe cigarettes, the NRDC said in that report.

The OnEarth article did raise concerns about whether new clean coal plants will be built to capture carbon dioxide. American Electric Powers proposals for new coal gasification plants in Ohio and West Virginia, for example, do not currently call for carbon dioxide controls.

But the lengthy article made scant mention of the impacts that large-scale mining has on mountains, forests, streams and coalfield communities.

It did include one quote from David Hawkins, the NRDCs clean-coal expert, on the subject: Even if some form of grand bargain were struck with the coal industry on dealing with the downstream effects of carbon emissions, the environmental community is not going to walk away from concerns about the upstream side, where the coal comes out of the ground.

As far as I know, its a matter of economics that causes people to decapitate mountains rather than mine the coal in a less abusive fashion, Hawkins said in the story.

So, if were going to use coal, we should pay the price that is needed in order to avoid ruining the landscape, he said.

In its letter to the editor, Friends of the Mountains said, The loss of human lives, the loss of homes, the loss of clean water, and the loss of the forested mountains are among the dirty secrets justified by the industrys term clean coal.

Last week, Gov. Joe Manchin announced West Virginia would pursue a plant to convert coal into liquid fuel.

Manchin said West Virginia would throw all of its resources behind building a state of the art, multi-product facility.

The West Virginia Coal Conversion Initiative, the governor said, would produce whatever product is most needed at a specific time be it natural gas, diesel fuel, jet fuel, hydrogen or chemicals.

Manchins announcement followed the national attention Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer received for his states clean coal push. Schweitzer is promoting a coal-to-diesel plant that would be fed by mining on state-owned property.

Schweitzer wants to mine state-owned coal on 11 square miles in Southeastern Montana, where there are large undeveloped coal reserves. The coal would feed a synthetic fuels plant that would turn coal into synthetic diesel.

The project is part of Schweitzers plan to develop Montana coal on a massive scale to provide an alternative to oil. Schweitzer says that the plant could use a process called Fischer-Tropsch, first developed by Germany in World War II.

Last week, the Northern Plains Resource Council came out against Schweitzers plan and published a detailed report explaining why.

Schweitzer says his model is a similar plant in South Africa, owned and operated by Sasol, an international petrochemicals firm.

But in its report, the Northern Plains Resource Alliance says the Sasol plant has been a huge polluter, citing data from company reports. The group also says the company is in the process of substituting natural gas for coal in its plant that produces liquid fuels, to reduce the pollution caused by using coal.

Based on the performance of the Sasol facilities, emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds would be very high, absent technological breakthroughs, the alliance report said. Production of diesel from coal would produce extremely large volumes of slag, other solid wastes, and hazardous wastes.

Absent huge additional construction and operating costs, carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-to-diesel plant would contribute more to global warming than production and use of the diesel it would replace.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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