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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: October 8, 2008 01:01 PM

The Banality of Clean Coal: Extraction Crimes


Three more retired coal miners died of black lung today. Over 105,000 Americans have suffered and died from black lung related diseases; 10,000 miners, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, have died from black lung in the last decade.

Despite a recent spike in black lung diagnoses, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler recently announced he was too busy "to tackle respirable dust." Stickler's apathy is nothing new to coal miners and their families--until an aggressive grassroots campaign and a tragic accident attracted national media in 1968, most politicians and coal operators denied that black lung ever existed. Some doctors on the payroll of the coal companies even claimed that coal mining cured TB. In truth, the medical community had been aware of black lung disease since the 1830s.

Sound outrageous? Coal's dirty legacy has been one of our nation's most unbelievable denials.

In the 1970s, as the nation panicked during another oil crisis, the coal industry and its political allies announced a massive "clean coal" plan for coal-to-liquid gas conversion that would free us from foreign oil dependence. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the coal conversion program turned into a prohibitive boondoggle, and the grand plans disappeared into the dirty air once the OPEC crisis subsided. In the process, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions from coal-fired plants ravaged our forests and lakes to the extent that we coined the term, "acid rain," to describe its devastation.

As they had done with black lung, the coal operatives and their political allies denied acid rain as an invention of environmentalists, despite the fact that scientists had been aware of the impact of sulfur dioxide emissions since the 1850s. Once again, it took an aggressive grassroots campaign to nudge Washington into signing the Clean Air Act in 1990.

According to a recent Gallop poll, the majority of Republicans do not believe global warming has begun, or that coal-fired plants generate over 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions. A quarter of the Democrats are on the same side of denial.

In the meantime, a new 1500 megawatt coal-fired plant being built in southern Illinois--one of the biggest in the nation--not only stands to emit 12 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, but sits on the edge of the New Madrid earthquake fault line.

Take our two main presidential candidates. They claim they are not deniers. Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain profess a heartfelt concern about climate change--and have made proposals to significantly cut emissions. But, those claims are belied by their support for coal and don't stand a chance of coming true by the time Obama's grade school daughters are ready to collect social security. Is that a sense of urgency, or a masked response of denial?

Obama would only have to visit his southern Illinois coalfield constituents, "the Saudi Arabia of coal," where the recent coal boom has done little to lift its residents from their staggering countywide poverty levels.

Illinois is the birthplace of commercial strip mining in the United States, dating back to the mid-19th century. Since then, untold millions of acres of fertile farm land, virgin forests and waterways have been wiped out with strip mining in over 20 states across the country--60 percent of our coal comes from strip mining today.

Strip mining not only devastates the environment. It also removes people, communities, and national heritage sites from their beloved homes and roots. In Appalachia alone, over 470 mountains have literally been obliterated, and adjacent streams and historic communities and their water sources have been poisoned or abandoned, and virtually any other sustainable industry derailed in the region. Robert Kennedy, Jr. calls these crimes against nature.

There is a reason coal booming West Virginia ranks 50th on Forbes Magazine recent slate of best business states.

With the rise of mechanization and mountaintop removal, strip mining also removes jobs. Over 90 percent of the mining jobs in the industry in many areas have been eliminated in the last several decades. Black lung, mining safety, acid rain, global warming--it's hard to imagine anyone denying those facts of life today.

Harder still to imagine anyone denying that coal is dirty, and will ever be clean.