iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: February 11, 2010 09:14 AM

The Big Shake: Is Chicago Earthquake a Wake Up Call for Clean Coal?

What's Your Reaction:

I wonder if anyone on President Obama's new Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage felt a slight rumble of concern when a 3.8-magnitude earthquake struck across Kane County in Illinois on Wednesday.

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 200 miles north of Mattoon, 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.

Denial has been standard policy for the coal industry for over 150 years.

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.

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

Another coal-fired plant being built in southern Illinois raises similar questions of denial.

Despite a protracted legal battle by local and environmental groups like the Sierra Club, a new 1,600-megawatt pulverized-coal plant is being built by Peabody Energy in Lively Grove, southern Illinois -- one of the biggest in the nation. It not only stands to emit an estimated 12 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, but sits on the edge of the New Madrid earthquake fault line.

The Peabody coal-fired plant -- like the "clean coal" marketing department, who took great pride in renaming the dirty coal-fired plant "the Prairie Energy Campus" -- also overlooks a good teaching moment: The past is prologue. The coal-fired plant is being built between the Wabash seismic and New Madrid fault lines, whose activity caused what local histories in Lively Grove referred to as the "Big Shake" in 1811. Geologists believe these active faults led to sinkholes and "flats" and altered the very waterways that will feed into the Peabody mine-mouth operation.

According to a scientific 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.

Learn some history, my dear "clean coal" friends: 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 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.

"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, from the coalfields to the coal markets of Chicago, to the new bridge to nowhere for FutureGen: The silent volcanoes of climate destabilization will continue to erupt until our nation decides to make another choice and bring an end to the coal-burning period.

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