Chuck Nelson mined coal seams deep below the Appalachian hills of Boone County, West Virginia, for nearly 30 years before dark powder and chemical particulates drove him from his home – and to the other side of the contentious coal debate.
“Whenever the wind would blow, it would bring big clouds of black dust that would cover everything in your house,” Mr Nelson, 52, said. “We didn’t want to leave, but then again, if you stayed there, you’re breathing this fine dust. The dust you’d see on your table and stuff wasn’t the dust that was hurting you – it was the dust that you can’t see, the fine particles.”
Although the dust that hounded Mr Nelson and his neighbours was coming from a coal-cleaning facility, the retired miner says the mining of coal – especially the mountaintop removal method, which reshapes vistas, annihilates ecosystems and, in some cases, poisons water – is similarly destroying communities throughout the region.
Mountaintop mining involves clear-cutting mountains and removing their peaks to get at relatively thin seams of coal that are often high quality but too shallow to deep mine. The extra dirt and rock is dumped in nearby valleys, where it can clog streams.
Despite the efforts of mining companies to clean up exhausted mountaintop mine sites, the most biologically diverse temperate hardwood forests on Earth are, for the most part, replaced with non-native grasses and invasive shrubs, and toxic sludge ponds dot the landscape, according to Vivian Stockman, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
The mining method that has divided West Virginia and other Appalachian coal states is just one facet of a debate that is gearing up to be as heated as health care reform, as lawmakers consider climate-inspired legislation that would fundamentally redefine the nation’s relationship with coal.
Coal has been dubbed the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. Deep mining is dangerous work and surface mining is environmentally hazardous, cleaning it requires toxic chemicals, and in the United States, coal burned for fuel releases more than a third of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming. Worldwide, coal burned primarily for fuel is responsible for about 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Pew Center on Climate Change.
Burning coal also lets off air pollutants, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxide, which have respiratory and cardiac health implications, according to Alan Ducatman, a doctor and professor at the University of West Virginia.
Coal and mining also release mercury, selenium and other elements and compounds that poison water, cause illness and deform fish.
“Extraction, transportation, the cleaning, the burning – every bit of it kills people,” Mr Nelson, the retired miner, said.
Still, Americans and the rest of the world depend on coal. It is the source of about half the nation’s electricity and about 40 per cent of the world’s electricity, according to the US government and the Word Coal Institute. The United States is sitting on about a quarter of the world’s coal reserves, and US coal alone has more potential energy than all of the world’s known recoverable oil together, although reserve estimates may be undergoing a downwards revision.
“We are the Saudi Arabia of coal,” Barack Obama, the US president, said during his campaign last year, acknowledging US dependence on the fuel source when he vowed to fund research on technology that would capture the carbon dioxide released by burning coal and store it instead of letting it into the atmosphere.
His administration has already pumped billions of dollars into such research, and more is likely to result from legislation in Congress now, though it could be years or even decades before wide use of this “clean coal” technology is possible.
The House of Representatives narrowly passed a climate bill last month and the Senate is expected to consider similar legislation when it returns from recess in September. Debate could turn passionate, partly because there is a huge chasm between liberal and conservative views about what is necessary to minimise climate change, and also because oil companies and other industry groups are organising their employees and others to protest against the legislation.
This week about 3,500 energy workers attended an anti-climate-bill rally in Houston, Texas. The rally, sponsored by a coalition of oil and other companies and groups, was reportedly part of a multistate campaign opposing the bill.
In line with Mr Obama’s campaign promises, the legislation requires the implementation of a cap-and-trade system that would require heavy polluters to purchase the right to emit greenhouse gasses beyond a set allowance. The companies would presumably pass those costs on to consumers, and the system would admittedly change the way coal businesses operate.
“The coal industry is under attack and West Virginia is ground zero for that attack,” Bill Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group, wrote in a recent editorial for an industry publication called Mountaintop Mining.
West Virginia produces more coal than any state besides Wyoming, where the geology dictates a type of mining that has not drawn as much criticism from environmentalists and neighbouring rural populations as mountaintop removal has in Appalachia.
Speaking at his office in Charleston, West Virginia, Mr Raney said the climate bill in Congress had not been thought through. “It punishes the American people,” he said, referring to higher electricity costs for consumers. “I can’t see punishing the American people in this kind of economy.”
He also worries about those working in the mining industry. Although the number of direct miners in West Virginia has fallen from a peak of 120,000 in the 1920s to fewer than 20,000 today, Mr Raney says speciality contractors – electricians, mechanics, engineers, lorry drivers – make up another 35,000 jobs in a state with a population of about 1.8 million.
In his editorial, Mr Raney said, “left-wing radicals, professional protesters, a biased news media, federal agencies and the Obama administration” are attacking the coal industry with the goal of “bringing an end to the use of coal as an energy source”.
Indeed, that is what some people want. Al Gore, the former US vice president, supports moving towards an energy grid fed entirely by renewable fuel sources, such as the sun, wind, geothermal energy and water. He has said it is impossible to keep burning coal without sequestering the carbon dioxide, and that is not a technical reality at this point. “‘Clean coal’ is like ‘healthy cigarettes’ – it does not exist,” he said last year.
Greenpeace’s Michael Crocker worries that carbon sequestration technologies will come too late to avert climate disaster. Greenpeace and other environmental groups opposed the House bill, saying it set emissions caps too low and then further undermined the already lenient targets by letting polluters offset their emissions with activities that reduce greenhouse gases.
“It’s a massive giveaway to the coal industry – there’s just no getting around it,” Mr Crocker said. “It’s light years away from what the science says is needed. It’s a transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to companies that are already doing quite well.”
Dan Weiss, of the Center for American Progress, supports the current legislation and notes that even if Americans were weaned off coal, the fossil fuel would still be used in other countries, notably China and India, which together account for nearly half of coal consumption and are building new coal-powered plants at a blistering rate.
“We do need to develop carbon-capture-and-store technology, not only for the United States, but so it can be used in other counties as well,” he said.
Mr Nelson, the retired miner, maintains that coal, left alone in forest-covered mountains, is the best possible carbon sequestration, but he acknowledges that at this point, the United States is far too dependent on coal to just quit using it.
“You can’t just shut it down, because it supplies our electricity,” he said. “But we need to phase out coal because of the climate crisis. We want them to deep mine, if they’re going to mine.”