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Cheap and dirty:5 legacies of coal

#5 Drainage of acidic materials, cleaning agents, and coal sludge pollutes rivers and streams.

Where are those little black rocks that burn?
Where are those little black rocks that burn?
Where are those little black rocks that burn?

In West Virginia last week, chemicals polluted the community water supply as leakage from a tank spilled into the Elk River, the largest river in the state. The poisons are now roiling downstream; Cincinnati is warning its people not to drink, bathe or permit contact until the toxic chemicals have moved on.

Freedom Industries Inc., the company responsible for the leak, has filed for bankruptcy following the environmental nightmare. According to court records filed Friday January 17, 2014, the company values its assets at less than $10 million.

When the Clinch River in Tennessee was inundated by a collapsing wall of coal sludge in 2008, toxic dumps from coal-burning power plants polluted some of the finest farmland in the world. Though it's not the first time, it may be the worst, so far.

To date, the plume of pollutants from US coal disasters such as the these is ~14,000 miles. The Tennessee Valley Authority has claimed responsibility for the Clinch River disaster, the dumping of over 1.1 billion gallons of concentrated pollutants into the river, layering the riverbed several feet deep with metals, carcinogens and toxins for miles.

In a similar release in Kentucky 7 years earlier, Massey Mines dumped 300 million gallons of arsenic, mercury and benzene. Canada experienced their worst spill of coal slurry in history on October 31, 2013, inundating fish hatcheries and the breeding ground for Alberta's only strain of native Rainbow Trout.

The aquatic life downstream was wiped out. Years later, many locals struggle to cope with the devastation of their lives and homes. As known carcinogens, these toxins create odd life forms such as this two-headed trout.

# 4 Air pollution from coal combustion causes acid rain, smog, numerous respiratory illnesses and a variety of cancers alongside ecosystem havoc.

Acid rain and dry deposition of air-borne chemicals contribute to further pollution of the topsoil. As the pollution in the air drops to Earth, the rain carries sulfur oxides of sulfur and nitrogen into our environment.

These acidic elements create long-term problems for many life forms, contributing to long-term damage to the ecology of neighbors to the ubiquitous coal-fired power plants. Almost half the air pollution is deposited by dry air, settling concentrations of sulfuric and nitric acid on soil, plants, and buildings.

Mercury is one of the metals that coal fires release in mass quantities. The amount of Mercury used to light an average CFL bulb, an amount we are careful to clean-up when spilled, is the same amount of Mercury in a single serving of fresh seafood as a result of putting the Mercury into our seas by burning coal.

# 3 Mining causes respiratory illness, ecological unsustainability, and cycles of boom and bust.

When the EPA nailed a major coal company for its systematic burial of stream beds and pollution of large tracts of land with selenium, the CEO accepted the responsibility.

He admitted his company had made short-term decisions that resulted in massive environmental damages. And many impacts are difficult to calculate. The World Health Organization (WHO) research indicates the toll on our world from lung cancer alone is ~250,000 people annually from air pollution, mostly from coal fired power plants.

Miners trade their health for a meager living in many rural areas. The low-paying jobs in hazardous conditions put many miners in jeopardy - dangerous work with health risks and vulnerability to employer demands.

The majority of coal mines are found in rural areas with few amenities, leaving miners few options for gainful employment other than peonage and risky labor in perilous conditions at the hands of mine bosses.

# 2 Renegade coal fires are today burning in abandoned mines, dumping tons of mercury into the atmosphere, and creating ~ 3 percent of global CO2 emissions.

In rural areas, people have been mining coal and then eventually abandoning mines for many years. Fires in these exposed seams of coal can burn for years and years, emitting toxins and massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

After mine explosions, companies essentially walk away, leaving environmental disasters in a strategy of run-away development, no different from smash-and-grab looting in riots in cities.

At just under 110 degrees Fahrenheit, spontaneous ignition occurs with low grade coal exposed to air for combustion. Thousands of these fires burn out of control today. Many were started by forest fires or lightning, and they often burn and smolder with little or no response by man.

Wild fires in coal seams present an increasing threat to our environment, but most governments spend little money on dealing with run-away development fires in coal mines or attacking naturally-occurring fires in coal seams. Some fires are traceable to the 1800s, long known to be burning out of control.

#1 With mountaintop removal for mining coal, we create temporary wealth for a few along with catastrophic flooding, destruction of whole ecosystems, and release of greenhouse gases for a long time.

In recent years, laws protecting stream beds and ecosystems have been trampled by the interests of mining at the expense of the environment. Nowadays, miners blast 600' off the tops of mountains and then dump it all into stream beds.

In 2009, the US EPA, Department of the Interior, and Army Corps of Engineers announced that unregulated coal mining has had devastating impacts on 6 states of Appalachia. Their joint Memo of Understanding addresses environmental damage, land use patterns, and societal impacts.

“Streams once used for swimming, fishing, and drinking water have been adversely impacted, and groundwater resources used for drinking water have been contaminated. Some forest lands that sustain water quality and habitat and contribute to the Appalachian way of life have been fragmented or lost.”

Rich in carbon, coal naturally releases massive amounts of CO2 when burned. Its low cost and wide availability make it an abundant source for cheap heat and power. Coal is Earth’s tragic flaw. We have too many of those little "black rocks that burn" for our own good.

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