Responding to lumps of coal

On New Year’s Day 2014 the Centre Daily Times ran a pro-coal, pro-fossil fuel opinion piece titled “Drilling, Mining Boom Does Not Spell Environmental Doom.”

Our response (reprinted below) was published on January 6, 2014.  If you see articles or opinions that are skewed on climate change or fossil fuels, don’t just mutter into your morning coffee.  Respond respectfully with comments online, letters to the editor, or a responsive Opinion piece.  Feel free to call us for help, or crib widely from this piece.  We’ve added internet links to useful sources.  

Author Dave Schellberg is right that we are not currently ready to move completely away from fossil fuels.  He’s wrong to suggest that we should not move as far as we can right now.   The more energy we generate from sustainable sources, the more we support that economy, and push innovation in a positive direction.

Worse that suggesting that inaction should be the choice we make in the face of imperfection, Mr. Schellberg moves from supporting fossil fuels to touting coal.  Coal may currently provide “cheap” fuel, but coal is a menace from beginning to end.  Mine tailings are toxic to waterways, plants, and fish, none of which does the humans nearby any good, either.  A study by the West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research shows that living in a coal mining community is dangerous to the health of non-miners, too:  Mining town residents have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increased risk for developing lung diseases (COPD) such as emphysema, and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.   As for jobs, mining companies have been favoring machines over human employees for decades.   The difference in people needed is immediately evident to anyone who looks at mountaintop removal (also called MTR) equipment*, but it’s also true in underground longwall mining.  The jobs are only there until there is a cheaper way.

Burning coal is better than it used to be thanks to smokestack scrubbers, but it still releases mercury and a slew of lesser-known toxins into the air when it’s burned.   Guess who lives downwind?   Not company executives or trust fund babies.   Babies with much higher rates of lung problems live there.   Asthma, cardiovascular disease are increased for children and adults all higher in these communities.  Cancer rates are higher, too.

Once the coal is burned to create the “cheap” electricity, we’re still not done.  Coal ash is the second largest waste stream in the United States.  Arsenic is one component.  It’s stored in a variety of ways, including unlined waste pits, containment areas with impoundment dams that do not always hold.  The cocktail of substances in coal ash is so toxic that exposure to it increases cancer risk 9 times MORE than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and 900 times more than the “acceptable risk” guidelines.  The better the air pollution gets, the worse the ash gets, because all the heavy metals and toxics that are “scrubbed” out of the smoke end up in the solid waste.   We cannot make both better.

Clearly, we’ve got to get off coal, but our power challenge is not just a coal problem.  We must move aggressively away from all fossil fuels.  Climate change threatens both people and planet in so many ways.  This is about public health, about hunger, about disease, about conflict and security, about disaster relief, and, yes, Mr. Schellberg, it is about caring for Creation, for the “clean air and pure water” that the Pennsylvania Constitution says are a right of future Pennsylvanians, and for the very mountains that shout for joy and the rivers that clap their hands in praise.

We can’t do everything today, but we must move as fast and as far as we can, as soon as we can.  We must do so as an act of hope.  Insulate, unplug, walk, and switch to clean power.  Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light can help faith communities, schools, and small businesses do so within-budget.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.  (Psalm 24:1)

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* See MTR trucks here.  Be sure to compare to the regular-sized bulldozer to the left of the picture for scale.   Also note: we have the DVD Renewal to loan to members.  One of its 10-15 min segments is about a group of faith leaders visiting an MTR site for the first time.