Wednesday, January 04, 2006An op ed in the New York Times, January 4, 2006, by Jeff Goodell, author of the forthcoming "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future."
IN recent years, one of the toughest turnaround jobs in American industry has been the effort to change the perception of coal from an industrial relic of 19th century to an energy source for the 21st century. The high-water mark of this makeover campaign may well have come last spring, when General Electric began its "ecomagination" advertising campaign touting its new clean coal technology. One ad featured glamorous, scantily clad models (male and female) shoveling coal in a dark mine while Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "16 Tons," the great song about hard labor and corporate exploitation, played on the soundtrack. Near the end of the ad, a voice announced, "Harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."
But there is nothing pretty about coal, as we have been grimly reminded by the plight of the 13 coal miners trapped by a mine collapse near Tallmansville, W.V. The American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution. In Appalachia, mountaintop removal mining - a method of mining in which the mountain is removed from the coal, rather than the coal removed from the mountain - has flattened some 380,000 acres in the region and destroyed more than 700 miles of streams.
Coal plants generate more than 130 million tons a year of combustion waste - fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge - that is laced with toxic metals like arsenic and mercury and pumped into holding ponds and abandoned mines, where it can sometimes leak into aquifers and drinking water. Most important, coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the United States, meaning that if we're going to get a handle on global warming, we'll have to get a handle on coal.
Still, in recent years - thanks in part to skyrocketing natural gas prices, worries about dwindling oil supplies, regulatory rollbacks of the Bush administration - coal has become sexy. And it indeed has many virtues.
Coal is cheap and plentiful. Right now, more than half the electricity generated in America is produced with coal. America is often called "the Saudi Arabia of coal," with enough to last us for 250 years. Improvements in emission controls make new coal plants much cleaner than the old coal burners; 120 of these up-to-date plants are in the works right now. New technology allows coal to be liquefied into diesel, a possible substitute for oil.
There is also a strong cultural connection to the resurgence of coal, particularly in the producing areas: it is a red-state rock, a taking back of America from the silly blue-staters who believed the future would be powered by solar panels and switchgrass. I recently attended a rally for a new coal plant in the Midwest where boosters chanted, "Coal is U.S.A.! Coal is U.S.A.!"
Nothing, however, has been more important to the comeback of coal than the purported safety improvements in mining. The coal industry knows that as much as Americans may love a cheap kilowatt, they are not going to support burning coal if it results in people suffering miserable deaths in Appalachian coal mines. The industry works overtime to suggest that coal mining today has nothing in common with its dark and exploitative past. The old days of breaker boys (children who picked rocks out of the coal) and methane explosions are gone, the coal industry argues, and mining today is safe, well paid and professional.
Promotional literature published by the National Mining Association and other industry groups usually show miners as clean-faced men in close proximity to high-tech machinery - computer screens, global positioning systems, bright yellow haul trucks. The average salary of a coal miner, the association says, is $50,000 a year. According to one coal industry Web site, working in a coal mine today is as safe as working in a grocery store.
The people in Tallmansville know better. Coal mining remains a dirty and dangerous business, especially in regions of Appalachia where all the easy coal is gone and what's left is increasingly difficult and dangerous to mine. (Coal mining is indeed a fairly safe operation in the big strip mines of Wyoming, where the 70-foot seams of coal lie so close to the surface that, in places, you can practically dig it out with a spoon.)
In parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, some mines are so complex and tight the workers call them "dogholes." Working in an underground mine, especially one owned by a small non-union operator in Appalachia, is one of the few jobs in America that is nearly as dangerous as commercial fishing in Alaska.
Not long ago, I spoke with a coal miner who was spending eight hours a day in a coal seam in western Kentucky that was a mere 20 inches high. You can't even turn around in a mine like that, have to mine laying on your belly. I asked him how much he earned. "Not enough to buy a new truck," he told me.
If coal is indeed going to be taken seriously as a fuel source in the 21st century, it's up to federal and state regulators to make sure that even 20-inch dogholes are safe (and they can be, with the proper technology, worker skills and governmental oversight). A good first step would be to reverse the Bush administration's new privacy rules, which have made it tougher for outsiders to obtain federal inspectors' reports. Even better would be to increase fines and other penalties for operators who break the rules. In many cases the penalties for running a dangerous mine - the West Virginia mine had 208 federal citations in 2005, up from 68 in 2004 - amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.
In the summer of 2002, outside the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, I watched for three days as heroic men rescued nine co-workers who had been buried alive. There was no talk about the Saudi Arabia of coal there, no easy words about energy independence or the economic virtues of burning coal. Like the families who stood vigil in Tallmansville this week, they were people who understood the real price of cheap power.