augusta free press news

Page Shields | Can coal be clean?

With all of the controversy surrounding the construction of a coal plant in Wise County, VA it bears repeating that coal is not clean energy. The phrase “clean coal technology” fosters hope that scientists will find a way to take harmful elements, especially carbon, out of coal. Unfortunately this is a lost hope as the harmful elements of coal cannot be simply scrubbed away. 

Virginians know that we have an abundance of coal in our region. We would like to believe that clean coal technology could provide the state and the nation with much of the energy needed for the future—all while being environmentally responsible. The problem with putting our hopes for energy independence in clean coal technology is that coal is not clean energy—coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel we have. Scientists have worked for decades to make it clean at a tremendous expense and there are still many unanswered questions and tremendous risks to our health and our environment.

Some progress has been made with the scrubbers that have been put on electrical power plants, successfully preventing the release of much sulfur in our air. However, the federally-mandated scrubbers that have made our air cleaner have also led to higher concentrations of pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium and uranium. Subsequently scrubbers have not been able to completely reduce carbon dioxide emission. The problem is that once the carbon dioxide is captured there is no safe way to store it on a large scale. The coal ash sludge left over after the scrubbing process is highly concentrated with harmful pollutants. Some coal plants are experimenting with storing the residue deep in the ocean, and other companies are considering returning it to the mines from which coal has been removed. Yet there are still many troubling, unanswered questions about potential water contamination and harm to aquatic life.

The coal ash sludge spill which occurred in Kingston, TN in December of 2008 is a startling example of the dangers caused by our attempts to make coal clean. Over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge surged over 400 acres of watershed. The coal ash sludge released was enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The non-combustible by-products of coal processing are contained in surface ponds for miles and miles. Currently, it is estimated that only three percent of the Kingston spill is cleaned up to date. The total cost to clean up the spill is estimated between $675-$975 million dollars. When looking at figures like that it is difficult to see coal as a cheap energy source and certainly not a clean one.

Clean coal is dangerous to the environment even without any spills or accidents. US power plants that use coal account for more than 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Time Magazine estimated that the Wise County coal –fired plant will emit 5.3 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, roughly the equivalent of putting a million more cars on the road. We need to develop sources of energy that do not produce carbon dioxide, instead of spending time and money trying to dispose of it. We already know how to harness wind and solar power. Money and resources would be better spent researching alternative energy options that can meet our needs and do not destroy our health and our environment.

Climate Action Alliance of the Valley is a group of concerned citizens in the Shenandoah Valley, working to dispel the myths of clean coal technology. We urge Congress to act swiftly to promote renewable energies that are truly clean. Investment in clean energy will create much-needed jobs and put us on a path towards clean, sustainable energy independence. We must sustain our planet and protect our health by choosing real clean energy—and that’s not coal


Page Shields is affiliated with the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action Alliance of the Valley.