Posts Tagged ‘acid mine drainage’

‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality

April 13, 2011

Have you ever listened to an argument for a while and thought to yourself, “You know, both sides are missing the point entirely”? That’s how I feel when the coal and nuclear camps fight about which side is a cleaner form of energy.

You’ve got articles like this one that claim that coal is more dangerous than nuclear and articles like this one applauding how safe nuclear power is, and yet no one addresses the bigger problem: high levels of energy consumption are what breed the high demand for different types of power. Instead of focusing most of our efforts on fulfilling a current standard of energy needs, why aren’t we more vocal about and focused on energy efficiency? Instead of building more power plants to meet the status quo, we should be looking for ways to reduce the need for those extra power plants by making our energy go further. Individuals should be reducing extraneous energy consumption too, but I’m focusing on the bigger entities and how they’re spending their time and money and brainpower.

The argument between nuclear and coal seems like a dead end because both are dangerous in different ways. Admittedly, I agree that coal power is more dangerous than nuclear power. Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead; acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines leave waterways running orange with excess iron, aluminum, and acid; mountaintop removal mining leaves toxins in the air and water, not to mention leaving people’s homes wide open to extreme flooding.

But I don’t want this to be interpreted as a free pass to nuclear — nuclear isn’t crystal clean. The difference is that coal is guaranteed to be constantly polluting the atmosphere, endangering communities nearby and often leaving coal miners to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, so the flow of danger and the actual negative consequences are constant and expected. Nuclear is regularly lauded as a safe alternative, but the problem is that when nuclear malfunctions, the results can be instantly catastrophic. It’s a constant, predictable stream of pollution with coal versus the possibility for a gargantuan amount of pollution if things go awry with nuclear (e.g. current worries in Japan about high radiation levels in food and radiation seeping into the groundwater under the plant). And of course, there’s the problem of where to store all that radioactive nuclear waste.

Anyway, commentators solely focusing on which is the cleaner energy source are missing the point. It shouldn’t be about which new type of power plant we build, but about how we can harness energy so that we don’t have to build new power plants. Energy efficiency breakthroughs are definitely still happening, but it’s disheartening that they aren’t more salient in the clean energy discussion. So yeah, nuclear power currently might be the lesser of two evils, but that isn’t where we should be setting the bar, and “coal or nuclear?” isn’t the question we should be asking.

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Bottled water debate: Don’t forget those without clean water

August 5, 2010

One thing that’s frequently missing from the bottled water debate is the admission that some people do need bottled water. All the arguments against bottled water are completely true and valid — anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of bottled water is just tap water; generally, it isn’t healthier than tap water; its production uses a lot of natural resources like oil; and it creates a lot of waste. But the first two are arguments of the privileged.

I am very vocal about my disdain for bottled water, and while visiting my dad one day, I let him know how I thought his crates and crates of bottled water were ridiculous. Then my step-sister told me that her and her husband also bought crates and crates of bottled water, but she added, “That’s because our water is yellow. I’d love to just drink it from the tap, but I don’t trust it.” She had a point — did I really expect her to drink yellow water for the sake of saving plastic?

According to a report in The New York Times, about one in 10 Americans has “been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways,” and the U.N. estimates that 884 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water (that’s almost three times the population of the United States). For people without access to clean water, the arguments that bottled water is no safer than tap water or any other water are laughable — for people without access to clean water, bottled water is the safest bet possible.

For instance, as noted in the Times report, mountaintop removal mining and other mining related activities (e.g. acid mine drainage from abandoned mines) leave tap water orange or brown. Poor infrastructure leaves water open to contamination from aging, leaky pipes. Factories, landfills, and farms pollute the water either through runoff or just dumping toxins into water without regard to the Clean Water Act and how potent the toxins are.

We need to address these problems before the bottled water conversation, at least in the United States, can really gain speed and validity. There are likely many people, like my step-sister, who would gladly drink straight from the tap, but it just isn’t a safe and viable option, so the bottled water argument falls flat when opponents try to argue that it’s no healthier or safer than tap water — because for some, it really is.

This also means that the people who can afford bottled water need to remain part of the conversation about clean, safe water, not ignoring the problems because they can afford to ignore them. Mother Nature Network notes that:

Only the very affluent can afford to switch their water consumption to bottled sources. Once distanced from public systems, these consumers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment.

Simply buying a Brita water filter and quitting bottled water is not the answer for everyone — for some people it is, but for others it’s about major infrastructure changes and environmental cleanup and regulations. By portraying bottled water as merely a dumb idea (e.g. just bottling and selling what’s coming out of your faucet) and implying bottled water drinkers are dumb, bottled water opponents are excluding and insulting the people whose only access to clean water is bottled water, which leaves their voices and the problems of water pollution unheard and unsolved.

Rand Paul is delusional about mountaintop removal mining

June 17, 2010

Rand Paul, a Republican candidate from Kentucky vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, has some really bizarre, misleading, and uninformed views about mountaintop removal mining. Knowing no better way to tackle this video of him discussing his views on coal and mountaintop removal mining, I’ve transcribed most of the video and will analyze his quotes.

Statement #1:

I believe business should be left alone from government. I think the permit process needs to be made easier from the federal level and the state level. I think we shouldn’t have special taxes on their profit. I think we should have lower corporate taxes, those create jobs.

I’d much more rather lower taxes on the coal industry so they can hire 100 new workers than I would say, ‘Let’s tax the coal industry, send it to Washington,’ so we can get 100 new people digging a ditch that may or may not need to be dug.

The permit process was easy for a while — it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the Environmental Protection Agency really started cracking down on mountaintop removal mining permits. If you’re applying for a permit to blow mountaintops to pieces, shouldn’t the process be a tough one? You’re (1) using explosives, (2) possibly using those explosives on mountains near homes and schools, and (3) building a slurry pond of sludge for the leftovers — so yeah, the red tape is warranted.

But then Paul wants to make it about jobs. If we just ease up on the mining industry, they’ll be able to hand out lots of jobs — sounds good in this troublesome economy. The problem is that mining jobs have been dimishing for a long time, as Erik Reece pointed out (in 2006), because mountaintop removal mining is highly mechanized:

Ironically, here in Kentucky where I live, coal-related employment has dropped 60 percent in the last 15 years; it takes very few people to run a strip mine operation, with giant machines doing most of the clear-cutting, excavating, loading, and bulldozing of rubble.

It’s not the “special taxes” that are preventing the coal industry from hiring workers — it’s the fact that they can do coal mining now with fewer workers, which means more profit for them.

Statement #2 (when asked how he feels about mountaintop removal mining):

I think whoever owns the property can do with the property as they wish and if the coal company buys it from a private property owner and they want to do it, fine. The other thing I think is I think coal gets a bad name because I think a lot of the land apparently is actually quite desirable, once it’s been flattened out.

As I came over here from Harland you’ve got quite a few hills, I don’t think anybody’s going to be missing a hill or two here and there, and some people like having the flat land. Some of it apparently has become quite valuable when it’s become flattened.

TreeHugger made an excellent point and has a picture of a pre-mining mountain and post-mining mountain, to show that mountaintop removal mining is more than just chopping a few hills down — it’s completely blasting the tops off mountains, turning streches of mountaintops into bare, flat rubble.

There are pictures of mining sites in all the links I’ve provided so far — would you prefer staring at the bulldozed, gray constuction area-type mountains or the green, flourishing, vibrant mountains of trees? And sure it’s quite desirable when it’s flattened out — to mining companies who want to get the coal inside of the mountains!

Probably not so desirable to the people whose homes get flooded because the trees aren’t there to absorb the water, or the people who have an attachment to the mountains as part of their surroundings. Or the elementary school 400 yards from the mountaintop mining site, downhill from a coal sludge impoundment that holds almost three billion gallons of coal slurry.

It’s not just coal companies politely blowing off their mountain pieces and leaving the surrounding land be — they are hungry for profit, and they are hungry to find lucrative coal seams. Larry Gibson owns and lives on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, and Gibson has been told it’s worth at least $450 million. He felt so unsafe — guarding land that is worth so much to coal companies — that he launched a donation campaign in the spring to raise money for a security system.

Statement #3:

And I think they do a good job at reclaiming the land and you know adding back in top soil, bringing in elk. So I think they’re doing a good job at it, but the bottom line is it’s not just me pandering to coal, it’s me believing in private property.

If they bought the property, they own the property, they can do with that property as long as they don’t pollute someone else’s property, and I don’t think they want to. If they dump something in the river that goes to the next property, your local judges here will stop them, but I don’t think they’re doing that.

I think what they’re doing is what they can do with property they own and it doesn’t appear to me to be something the federal government should be getting involved with.

Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land, but it often doesn’t happen as it should. A recent study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that almost 90 percent of inactive mountaintop removal mining sites “had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture.” You can avoid completely restoring it if you put it to a better “economic” use, but throwing down some top soil isn’t the end of the road.

And Rand Paul is delusional if he thinks that (1) mountaintop removal mining doesn’t inherently pollute the air and water around the sites and (2) local judges can easily just listen to a resident’s concerns and tell the immensely powerful coal companies to cut it out. First here are some pictures of how mountaintop removal easily causes water pollution:

1. When a coal sludge impoundment gave way in Tennessee, here’s how the water looked:

2. Here’s a typical waterway tainted by either acid mine drainage or coal debris:


It’s actually not uncommon for children who live near abandoned coal mines or other coal mining sites to draw pictures in school and color the water orange or red instead of blue.

And it’s difficult for people to be heard — Appalachia is an area with a lot of poverty, and it’s an area where people’s concerns are vastly muted by the powerful, rich coal companies. If federal judges have trouble getting coal companies to follow the rules, do you think local judges are going to have an easier time?

The truth is that coal companies don’t care at all if they pollute anyone’s water. They don’t care if you’ve got orange water coming from your sink, coal ash in your lungs, or a house threatened by a flood (of water or even coal slurry).

Paul has this romantic notion of coal companies as these sweet entities that mind their own business, stay out of everyone’s way, and immediately learn their lesson when they cross onto someone else’s property. But as we can see from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, coal companies don’t take safety or anything else seriously, except for getting their coal and getting their money.

Paul wants to believe they are the kids at playtime sitting in the corner, playing with blocks, not bothering anyone. In reality, coal companies are the bullies that take people’s lunch money, break their toys, and never get in trouble for any of it (or talk their way out of it).