02/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Coal is Dirty From Start to Finish

As I and many others have reported here on Huffington Post, on December 22nd, at 12:30 a.m., a containment wall holding back 50 years worth of toxic coal ash gave way. The sludge rushed into the Emory River, creating a 20 foot tall wave of waste and water that proceeded to overtake 400 acres of land, ruining homes and permanently changing the lives of residents of Harriman, TN.

Coal combustion waste is not usually part of the conversation when the environmental impacts of coal are discussed. Traditionally, most of the "life cycle of coal" is excluded; most politicians, environmental groups, and mainstream media focus on what comes out of the smokestack.

Little attention is paid to where the coal comes from, like mountaintop removal coal mining , or to the waste created after the coal is burned. That focus has created stronger laws focusing on decreasing air pollution, by demanding that coal-burning utilities place stronger scrubbers on their operations, thereby making dirty coal "somewhat cleaner" to burn.

According to the law of conservation, once matter is created, it cannot be destroyed, but it can be re-arranged. Coal that is burned leaves waste behind, known as coal ash. The "cleaner" coal burns, the dirtier its waste, since toxins that would have been released into the atmosphere are now concentrated into the waste product.

Its important to note that all steps in the life cycle of coal wreck communities, from Appalachian coalfield residents watching their mountains being destroyed, to urban areas thick from smokestack pollution, to the incident in Harriman, TN.

So, if the mining of coal is dirty, the burning of coal is dirty, and the waste left over from burning and processing coal is dirty, what's the solution?

We need to Power Past Coal. We need to expose the truth that coal is dirty, and plug into new power.

Power Past Coal is a project of a loosely connected network of diverse organizations all across America who are working on energy and social justice issues.

Organizations fighting to defend their land from harmful mining practices, stopping new coal-fired power plants, or campaigning for a new energy policy agreed to launch a project together that could bring attention to the urgency of and connections between our efforts.

By identifying and publicizing 100 days of independent actions, we will highlight a narrative that shows both the problems with and solutions to our current energy policy. By joining together, we raise the profile of and add value to our individual campaigns.

The loose structure of this project is based on the philosophy of Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest who wrote,

"Groups ranging from ad hoc neighborhood associations to well-funded international organizations are confronting issues like the destruction of the environment [and] social justice. They share no orthodoxy or unifying ideology... they remain supple enough to coalesce easily into larger networks to achieve their goals."

Coal is dirty and outdated, from the extraction process to its waste disposal. You cannot make coal cleaner, you can only make parts of its process cleaner, but the toxins do not go away. It would go against the laws of physics.

We need to clean up our act. Coal won't end tomorrow, but we need to transition away from our dirty past, and invest in a clean energy future. We need to start with energy efficiency and conservation, because the United States is the Saudia Arabia of energy waste.

Once we do that, technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal, which leave a much smaller footprint on on the planet, become feasible.



We need to dramatically change the course of our energy future and we need to do it now. If not, we will continue to expose communities to land-destroying mining practices, pollution-belching smokestacks, and water-damaging coal combustion waste.