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Earthquake Denial? Why Is Peabody Building a Massive Coal-Fired Plant in the New Madrid Seismic Zone?

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As the second explosion at a nuclear power plant in Japan blew the roof off a containment area today, and authorities attempted to downplay the radiation fallout unleashed by the devastating earthquake, I've been thinking about the "Big Shake" in my southern Illinois coalfields and Big Coal's policy of denial:

Why is Peabody Energy building one of the biggest coal-fired plants in the nation in the New Madrid Seismic zone?

A boondoggle in the making, the Peabody Prairie Energy plant has already doubled in construction costs -- the ballooning $4.4 billion price tag will now be shouldered on utility ratepayers, among others.

But the spiraling costs -- not to mention the 12 million tons of CO2 emissions that will annually be released -- are nothing compared to a potential earthquake disaster.

Peabody's 1,600-megawatt pulverized-coal plant is being built in Lively Grove, in southern Illinois -- between the Wabash seismic and New Madrid fault lines. Anyone with a lick of history knows what happened in Lively Grove during the "Big Shake" of 1811, when one of the largest earthquakes in U.S. history in nearby New Madrid, Missouri, altered the very waterways that will feed into the Peabody mine-mouth operation.

In brief: In the early hours of December 11, 1811, a rumbling noise swept across the southern Illinois region like a guttural moan of thunder. Then came the shocks and cracks. The shattering shakedown of forests. Log cabins collapsed like twigs. Crevasses opened. The worst recorded earthquake in the Americas in that period broke from its epicenter in New Madrid, Missouri, just across the Mississippi River, causing it to reverse its course. The contours of streams and creeks shifted. Over 1,800 aftershocks followed over the next several months. Black gobs of sand and water spewed from fissures like coal blasts. Within hours of the first shock, a sulfurous vapor was cast into the atmosphere, darkening the skies in a portentous display of nature's power.

According to a report published in Nature magazine in 2005, conferring with a U.S. Geological Survey, there is a 90 percent chance that a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake will occur in the New Madrid seismic area within the next fifty years.

Moreover, this dirty coal-fired plant is also being built in the scattered ruins of a prehistoric Cahokia mounds civilization, right off Mud Creek. The Cahokia empire ultimately collapsed in the thirteenth century as an environmental disaster, unable to sustain its urban demands and resources.

But denial has always been a key part of the coal industry and their bedfellows in government.

Although black lung was first diagnosed in 1831, it took until 1969 to pass federal legislation to deal with its ravages.

Although scientists recognized the deleterious impact of sulfur dioxide emissions as early as the 1860s, it took an aggressive grassroots movement to pass the Clean Air Act of 1990 to overcome the denial of acid rain, which had scorched the forests from the Appalachians to Canada.

Today's "clean coal" rhetoric is simply the last stage in the anatomy of dirty coal denial.

A year ago in February, a 3.8-magnitude earthquake struck across Kane County in Illinois. As I wrote last year:

The earthquake, minor compared to the 5.2-magnitude earthquake that shook the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone in southern Illinois and parts of Indiana in 2008, is located about 250 miles north of Meredosia, Illinois--home of FutureGen, the experimental carbon capture and storage bridge to nowhere.

But FutureGen is also located less than 100 miles from the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone. According to one seismologist expert, "The strongest earthquakes in the last few years have come from the Wabash Valley Fault, which needs more investigation."

Other experts openly question whether injecting carbon dioxide back into underground storage areas might actually trigger earthquakes. According to an article in New Scientist last year:

Chemical reactions between the injected CO2, water and rock could also destabilise the rock, says Ernest Majer, a seismologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who briefed the Senate on CCS hazards this week. "It's such a new technology that none of these issues have been addressed," says Majer.

Putting aside the huge issues of peak coal, colossal economic feasibility and storage questions that have yet to be answered about implementing carbon capture storage technologies on a commercial scale, as well as the reality that any CCS plant would effectively increase deadly coal mining extraction, none of the "clean coal" enthusiasts ever seem to dwell much on the ramifications of leaks or potential accidents at CCS plants.

As we continue to watch the tragedy unfolding in Japan, I hope our own government regulators and coal industry officials are held accountable for their denial of seismic activity in our own coalfields.

"HOW LONG CAN the earth sustain life," wondered an editorial in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1892, if we depend on the "wonderful power of coal?" The editorial lambasted Americans for our lack of vision and sense of energy conservation, and our need to "invent appliances to exhaust with ever greater rapidity the hoard of coal."

A century later, this ultimate reckoning still resonates as the silent tsunami of coal mining and burning devastate our communities, and climate destabilization continues to bring us to the brink of survival.

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation/Basic Books).

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