The View from Coal Country

A coal plant and playground

The conversation about climate change revolves to a great extent around coal-fired power plants in the U.S., China, and around the world because of their enormous emissions of carbon dioxide and the alarming rate at which new plants are being proposed and constructed. Today was a day for absorbing many of the other ugly truths about coal. Some students and I toured coal country in Western Pennsylvania with the help of community activists fighting bravely against entrenched adversaries. We watched in horror as an arsenic-laden mist rained down on our car while we drove past an enormous coal plant in a small rural town. Our jaws dropped even further as we drove for miles around a 1,300-acre toxic fly ash dump that loomed behind soft earthen dams and threatened to bury entire neighborhoods with toxic sludge when heavy rains come. We were heartbroken hearing stories of the families sick with cancer, the dead crops, the deformed livestock, and the abandoned homes and farms. We felt outraged to learn of the whopping lies the coal companies had told residents when they first proposed to bring their filthy and dangerous activities to these towns. And, we really began to grasp the magnitude of the betrayal of the communities in coal country by government officials at all levels that have never truly regulated any aspect of coal mining, burning, or waste disposal in any serious way at all. There are several proposals in the works that may finally start closing up some of these loopholes and start regulating coal under the laws that are meant to protect us from hazards like these. It remains to be seen whether they will be finalized or whether the coal lobby remains powerful enough to gut them or block them as they have for decades. What I am beginning to realize, however, is that the use of coal for energy is so inherently destructive and toxic that it may not be possible to protect people or the environment we live in from its devastating effects. From the moonscapes resulting from mountaintop removal, to extreme levels of air and water pollution, to waste sites prone to catastrophic failures, the life cycle of coal should provoke outrage among even the most level-headed of us. If I could have the ear of the negotiators in Copenhagen, I would remind them of these many good reasons — above and beyond climate change — that now is the time to phase out coal and that we should do it with haste. A global shift from dependency on coal to a future built on solar panels, wind farms, and energy efficiency will not only help keep sea levels and global temperatures in check, it will free us from the dirty legacy of coal.