Coal: Still the most harmful (and harmfully hyped) fuel for Wisconsin

Photo shows a mule pulling load of coal in an ...
Photo shows a mule pulling load of coal in an old mine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An op-ed that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday claims that coal is still the best fuel because burning coal produces fly ash which can be used in concrete and in road building. Besides, says James R. Rosenmerkel, global warming and climate change (thanks to fossil fuel’s carbon dioxide) are “non-proven” and if we don’t burn coal, calamity will occur:

“mines will disappear, miners will be unemployed, railroads will be bankrupt, utility professionals will disappear; highway and pavement construction will be reduced by 35% or more.”

From where such information comes, the writer does not say, which may lead a reader to conclude that at least some of the above is “non-proven.” Though it is certain that ending the reign of coal will indeed close mines and put many miners out of work,  mining industry employment has been shrinking for a long time due to the use of ever-bigger mining machines.  Coal mining employed 705,000 men in 1923. By 2003 the number of coal miners had declined to 70,000. The op-ed states that coal “provides more than 50% of the electric power produced in this country”, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration put it at 42%. (In 2012, coal-generated power was down below 38%.) So the trend is down. But there is no denying the destruction and pollution that coal mining causes. (For a thorough education on coal mining issues in West Virginia and elsewhere, see the Coal Tattoo blog by journalist Ken Ward.) Surely there is a better way to put people to work. Clean energy and conservation, anyone?

But let’s accept, at least, the figure Rosenmerkel cites provided by the American Coal Ash Association regarding the use of coal ash for recycling: 45% of the 142 million tons of coal ash produced by U.S. coal-fired power plants in 2011 was recycled. That leaves about 70 million tons of highly toxic material (including mercury, arsenic and cancer-causing hexavalent chromium) to be dumped every year into separate landfills or “surface impoundments” which are notorious for leaching and leaking. And at least one big coal impoundment in Tennessee famously failed when its dam collapsed, sending a billion gallons of toxic water over 300 acres of land. And it wasn’t too long ago (exactly two years ago) that a coal ash-filled bluff collapsed into Lake Michigan at the WE Energies Oak Creek power plant.

Coal ash is a hazardous material which the EPA has not yet got around to calling a hazardous material. And while it may have legitimate and fairly safe (as far as we know) uses in construction, we make too much of the stuff. We simply cannot recycle or capture or make benign all the by-products of burning coal, and we cannot strip mine it without causing great ugliness, destruction of land, water and air pollution. Coal is a hazardous material that is best left in the ground.

Finally, Rosenmerkel writes that coal cannot be replaced by renewable energy: “No sun or wind–no electricity.”  Well, the province of Ontario in Canada is about to put an end to burning coal (a province, not a city) by switching to mostly natural gas and wind power. And maybe eventually we in Wisconsin and the nation can learn how to live without all the electric power we claim to need in order to get by on the sun and wind alone.