Coal Export Company Accused of Deceiving the Public

One of the companies involved in a controversial proposal to build a coal export terminal in northern Washington has been accused of violating local environmental laws.  The terminal developer, SSA Marine, was discovered clearing roads through the wetland on Cherry Point, the site of the proposed coal terminal.  According to Whatcom County Councilmember Carl Weimer, this activity is probably against county rules.

Weimer was the one who first discovered the roads, which he estimates have displaced about five acres of wetland already.  Weimer was walking his dog at Cherry Point when he saw that someone had been clearing land at the site of the proposed coal export terminal.

“I thought that was odd,” wrote Weimer on his blog, “since the Council had just recently been told by our planning staff that to date SSA had not even submitted a complete application for their project, let alone been given permits to start clearing anything.”

Weimer asked County Planning and Development Services to look into the matter.  According to the Bellingham Herald, county natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch investigated, and discovered a consulting firm working for SSA Marine was indeed behind the development.  The company was ordered to halt work immediately and to apply for permits if it wants to go on clearing wetlands.

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen agrees SSA Marine was violating local laws, and says the company should be held accountable.  However company representatives say the road building was part of monitoring work they received a permit to conduct back in 2008.  In his blog post, Weimer had noted this earlier permit, saying he was informed about it when he asked Planning and Development Service to look into the road-building.

According to Weimer, Whatcom Planning and Development Services “said that SSA had asked for and was given written permission in 2008 to drill some monitoring wells, but that permission did not include permission to clear vegetation or do anything near this level of ground disturbance.” 

The discovery that SSA Marine was clearing wetlands without permission isn’t the first time communities in the Pacific Northwest have had a coal export company deceive them.  Earlier this year, it turned out the developer of a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington had lied to county officials about the amount of coal the company wants to send through the Port of Longview.

The developer of the Longview proposal, Millennium Bulk Logistics, had said in a permit application that it wanted to export five million tons of coal each year.  However internal documents obtained by environmental groups showed Millennium was really planning to export up to 25 million tons of coal every year, making for a much bigger project with a larger environmental impact than county officials were informed of.

After the true scale of its plans became public, Millennium withdrew its permit application.  It is now working on a new application for a 25 million ton facility—a development that has moved back the timeline for the project.  It remains to be seen whether news of SSA Marine’s illegal clearing will similarly affect the Cherry Point export proposal.

What’s certain is that should this or another coal export facility be built in the Pacific Northwest, the impact on the environment would be vastly larger than the five acres of wetland SSA Marine has already cleared.  The United States has the largest reserves of coal in the world, and proposed coal export terminals would link the US coal supply to quickly-growing demand in developing nations. 

With abundant, cheap coal readily available, countries like China and India would be tempted to run their growing economies on the dirty fossil fuel rather than invest in clean energy.  The result would be catastrophic for the global climate, and likely make the worst effects of global warming almost impossible to avoid.  A new generation of coal plants in eastern Asia would also emit pollutants like mercury that would blow across the Pacific Ocean, affecting air and water quality in the western United States.

What happens at Whatcom County’s Cherry Point thus has implications for the global fight against climate change, and will influence the direction of world energy development.  However for county residents, the local environmental impacts are just as important.  And SSA Marine’s recent actions have cast doubt on the company’s ability to win the trust of the community.

“I’m not seeing SSA Marine acting in good faith here,” wrote an anonymous commenter on Councilmember Weimer’s blog about the road-building.  “If this is representative of how they are going to treat Whatcom County, then I now officially have trust issues with them.”

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Historic Landmark Threatened by Mountaintop Removal Mining

On Monday around 600 people began a five-day march to commemorate one of the most important moments in the US labor movement, at a time when a historic landmark in the fight for workers’ rights is being threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining.  The marchers intend to travel by foot from the town Marmet, West Virginia to Blair Mountain, site of the 1921 “battle of Blair Mountain.”  This historic workers’ uprising from ninety years ago remains the second-largest armed rebellion in the history of the United States, surpassed only by the Civil War. 

The workers’ rebellion began in August of 1921, as West Virginia coal miners were fighting for the right to unionize and demanding better working conditions from coal companies.  Company officials responded by hiring armed thugs who were ordered to violently intimidate union organizers, and in some cases evicted mining families from their houses despite lacking legal authority to do so.  When a police chief sympathetic to the miners’ demands was murdered on August 2nd, it sparked a rebellion against the coal companies.

Over the summer of 1921 at least 10,000 coal miners joined an armed rebellion against mining companies and a citizen militia assembled by officials from West Virginia’s Mingo County.  The workers used the double peaks of Blair Mountain as a stronghold that could be defended with relative ease.  Roughly twenty to fifty people were killed in gunfire that erupted between miners and the militia, and which continued for a days.  The battle ended when the US army sent in troops to stop the rebellion, and miners surrendered because they were not willing to fire on US soldiers. 

Though few people today would condone the use of violence employed by both sides in the battle of Blair Mountain, it remains a historically and culturally important moment in the US labor movement.  The rebellion may not have led to immediately tangible gains for mine workers, but for decades it served to inspire coal miners and other workers fighting for the right to unionize. 

Yet today Blair Mountain, the most important landmark of the rebellion, is being threatened by the very industry miners marched against in 1921.  Coal companies have proposed to literally blow up the mountaintop to reach underground coal seems through the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.  Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive form of mining, which involves blasting away the face of a mountain with explosives to reach the coal underneath. 

Environmental groups and many local residents argue mountaintop removal would destroy a historic and archeological significant landmark at Blair Mountain.  It’s for this reason that hundreds of people have joined a reenactment of coal miners’ historic march to Blair Mountain—though of course minus the armed rebellion element.  “I’m doing this to preserve the history and culture Blair Mountain represents,” said marcher Joe Stanley, a retired member of United Mine Workers of America.  “If we allow them to destroy Blair Mountain, we’ll forget the actions done by brave men that led to strengthening the labor movement and creating the middle class.”

Environmental nonprofits like the Sierra Club are urging the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to preserve Blair Mountain as a historically important site.  Doing so would preclude mountaintop removal or other very destructive activities from taking place there.

By drawing attention to the special place of Blair Mountain in the history of the labor movement, participants in this week’s march hope to persuade government agencies to protect the site for future generations.  During the week hundreds of people are expected to join the 600 who set out today on the way to Blair Mountain.  The march will end on Friday with a rally where the speaker lineup includes environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and retired union member and community organizer Chuck Nelson. 

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Greenpeace Climbers Scale Chicago Coal Plant

The effort to shut down Chicago’s two coal plants literally climbed to new levels on Tuesday, as eight activists from environmental watchdog group Greenpeace scaled the smokestack of the coal-fired Fisk Generating Station power plant.  The activists spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday morning hanging from the 450-foot high smokestack, while painting the phrase “Quit Coal” in giant letters.  The action was part of an ongoing campaign led by Greenpeace and other national and local environmental groups, focused on cleaning up air pollution by replacing both of Chicago’s coal plants with clean energy.

On Tuesday afternoon, while the paint job on the smokestack continued, eight more Greenpeace activists rappelled off a bridge near Chicago’s other coal-burning power station, the Crawford Plant.  They unfurled a banner with messages in both English and Spanish.  The English translation read “We Can Stop Coal.”  The dangling banner prevented a coal barge from moving down the river on its way to the Crawford Plant.

Both the Fisk Generating Station and the Crawford Plant are among the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the United States.  Because the plants are located in a highly populated area, they also expose more people to pollution than any other coal plant in the country.  Approximately one in four Chicago residents are potentially impacted by the health effects of pollution from the coal plants, and a study released in 2010 found that in the last eight years the coal plants were responsible for $1 billion in health damages.   

All this has put Chicago at the center of a national campaign against coal plants.  If the local government can’t shut down these polluters, then it won’t bode well for the city’s professed commitment to becoming a leader in green industry.  At the same time, moving off coal in one of the most important industrial and economic centers in US history would represent a symbolically very great victory for environmentalists and public health advocates.  

To that end Alderman Joe Moore (a Chicago alderman is roughly equivalent to a city councilor) is sponsoring a Clean Power Ordinance—local legislation that would require the Fisk and Crawford plants to either install new pollution controls or shut down.  The ordinance received a hearing last month, but a vote on whether to pass it was postponed by the city government.  Greenpeace supports passing the Green Power Ordinance, and is also pushing coal plants’ utility owner, Edison International, to close the plants by the year 2013

Nationally coal plants are among the nation’s most important emitters of carbon dioxide, toxic mercury, and pollutants that cause smog and acid rain.  Environmental groups have thus made phasing out coal plants a climate and public health priority, and are pushing to have them replaced with cleaner sources of energy generation.  Over the last several years a coalition of groups led by the Sierra Club has defeated around 150 proposals to build new coal plants in the US.  Now environmentalists are moving on the existing coal fleet, with a focus on retiring the dirtiest offenders like the Fisk and Crawford Plants.  In response to public pressure as well as state and local legislation, utilities and energy providers have already announced retirement dates for around fifty of the nation’s 600 coal plants.

Shortly before 8:00 Wednesday morning, the Greenpeace Activists on the Fisk smokestack finished painting their message and descended from the plant.  However the memory of their daring climb won’t be easily erased: the words “Quit Coal” are now visible from afar on the side of the smokestack at the Fisk Station.  It’s a reminder of the way many Chicago residents have come to feel about their city’s reliance on coal plants that emit harmful pollutants, and which cause millions of dollars of damages in public health costs each year. 

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Report Blames Massey Energy for Deadly Mining Explosion

An independent investigation has concluded that Massey Energy, a coal mining company recently purchased by Alpha Natural Resources, was guilty of ignoring safety regulations in a way that set the stage for a disastrous explosion in a West Virginia underground coal mine last year.  According to the investigation, which was led by a former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and commissioned by the former governor of West Virginia, Massey failed to observe basic safety procedures so that the eventual occurrence of a deadly mining explosion was almost inevitable. 

When an explosion did occur in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in April of last year, it left 29 coal miners dead and sent shock waves through mining families in West Virginia and other states.  According to the new report, the accident was preventable and either would not have happened or would have been much less serious had basic safety guidelines been followed. 

“The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety systems identified and codified to protect the lives of miners,” says the report.  Among other safety violations, Massey allowed combustible coal dust and methane gas to build up inside the Upper Big Branch mine. 

Eventually a spark from a piece of mining equipment ignited the highly flammable material and caused a blast that enveloped a large area of the underground mine.  Water sprayers meant to minimize the damage from such explosions were apparently broken and had been left unfixed.  But what may be even more disturbing is the increasing evidence that conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine were not unique.  Rather they seem to be typical of mines formerly owned by Massey Energy, which will now be passed on to Alpha Natural Resources.

The new report, which is the first independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster completed since the explosion, chronicles how miners working for Massey have been prevented from voicing their concerns about safety conditions by the fear that they would be fired.  By cutting corners when it came to safety, Massey was able to minimize costs in a way that led to increased profits but put the lives of miners at risk.  This profit-at-any-cost culture set the stage for the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Still, Massey Energy is not solely to blame for the tragedy in the Upper Big Branch mine.  The report notes that agencies charged with enforcing mine safety regulations did an insufficient job holding Massey to the letter of the law.  This made it relatively easy for the company to ignore safety guidelines meant to keep miners from harm.  Under these conditions Massey developed a culture of “normalization of deviance,” in which ignoring safety laws that increase mining costs became the accepted norm.  The report also notes safety practices at Massey have changed little since last year’s disaster.

Massey has repeatedly denied it is responsible for the deadly explosion, claiming the Upper Big Branch disaster was an unforeseeable accident.  However negative publicity in the aftermath of the explosion took its toll on the company, and was credited with prompting CEO Don Blankenship’s retirement last year.  In January of this year Alpha Natural Resources announced it was buying out Massey Energy for $8.5 billion.  This means that now, just over a year since the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey Energy as an independent entity no longer exists. 

However the Massey buyout isn’t a guarantee of improved safety conditions for workers.  Soon after the buyout was announced, the Charleston Gazette reported Alpha Natural Resources also has a long history of safety violations.  In 2007 the roof collapsed in a mine owned by an Alpha subsidiary, killing two miners.  The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration accused the company of ignoring safety regulations that might have prevented the accident, and fined the Alpha subsidiary $80,000.

This suggests a culture of routine safety violations is not unique to Massey Energy alone, but is a much deeper problem in the coal mining industry at large.  When a spark in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine set off the blast that killed 29 workers, it was a particularly extreme example of the safety violations that have characterized the practices of US coal mining companies for years.   

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Washington to End Coal Burning Within its Borders

On Thursday the Washington state legislature passed a law that will gradually phase out the burning of coal in the state over the next fourteen years.  Washington’s one existing coal-burning facility, the TransAlta Plant located near Centralia, will be required to end coal combustion at one of its twin boilers in 2020.  Use of coal in the other boiler will stop five years later.  The TransAlta Plant will also have to install pollution control equipment to reduce regional haze before 2013.  Finally, TransAlta will direct $30 million toward job creation and energy efficiency in the community near the coal plant, and will provide $25 million to go toward clean energy projects in Washington.

The legislation is the result of a deal agreed on between Canadian-based TransAlta Corporation, Washington environmental groups, labor unions, and Governor Christine Gregoire earlier this legislative session.  Environmental organizations had originally hoped to see coal at TransAlta completely eliminated by 2015, but opposition from the labor community made such an outcome all but impossible this year.  In this context the agreement to begin phasing coal out in 2020 drew praise from environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

“Washington has created a model for the nation of how investing in the transition to a clean-energy future can create jobs and a healthy economy,” said Andrew Rose, volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Washington Beyond Coal campaign.

Washington’s passage of legislation to phase out the TransAlta Plant is the latest in a series of recent state and regional decisions that will retire coal plants all over the country.  Last year state regulators in Oregon agreed to phase out that state’s only coal plant no later than 2020.  Earlier this month, the US Environmental Protection Agency came to a settlement over pollution with the Tennessee Valley Authority that will result in eighteen aging coal plants closing between now and 2017.  Other plants across the country, especially the oldest and dirtiest ones, are under pressure to close due to public health concerns.  On Wednesday six environmental justice activists occupied a coal plant in Chicago to protest pollution of nearby communities.

Burning coal releases toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic, as well as emissions that cause acid rain and smog pollution.  The health effects of coal pollution include asthma, heart disease, cancer, and neurological damage.  Replacing coal plants with cleaner energy sources will also reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, because coal releases more carbon when burned than almost any other fuel.  Retiring coal plants has become a national priority for environmental nonprofits.  The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest and oldest green organizations, has set a goal of transitioning the US completely off coal by the year 2030. 

Eliminating Washington’s only coal-fired power plant will bring the country one step closer to the goal of a coal-free future.  With around 600 coal plants spread across the country, much still remains to be done.  The greatest concentrations of coal plants are located in the East and Midwest, so western states with fewer plants to begin with have unsurprisingly been the first to mandate an end to coal combustion in their borders.  Washington’s new law positions the state to be a leader in the low-carbon economy.

“Passage of this bill marks a milestone on the path to a coal-free future for Washington and a significant step toward a clean energy economy for our state,” said Kristina Dumas of Environment Washington, praising Thursday’s legislative victory. “Now is the time to further explore and embrace cleaner, greener sources of energy like the sun and wind.”

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Greenpeace Sets World Record Asking Facebook to Unfriend Coal

coal-Facebook-Greenpeace-world recordAt 1:00 AM Eastern Time Wednesday night, Greenpeace launched a day-long effort to break the world record for the most comments left on a Facebook post within twenty-four hours.  The subject of the post in question: A call from Greenpeace for Facebook to power its databases with 100% clean energy rather than coal and other polluting energy sources.  The world record-setting effort was part of an ongoing Greenpeace campaign focused on persuading Facebook to green its data centers.

In its Facebook note Wednesday night, Greenpeace invited supporters to “be part of a Guinness World Record by commenting on Facebook’s choice of electricity.”  To break the previous world record participants would need to leave at least 50,000 comments on the post within twenty-four hours.  By using the Facebook site itself to break the record, Greenpeace hoped to get the company’s attention in a way that had not been possible before.  “We want Facebook to run their massive data-centers on renewable energy, and ‘Unfriend’ dirty coal and dangerous nuclear,” said the post which participants were asked to comment on. 

Greenpeace provided instruction in nine languages for those who wanted to help set the world record.  Over the next day tens of thousands of people from all over the world wrote in to ask Facebook to power itself on clean energy.  By the time of the 1:00 AM deadline Thursday night, the original post from Greenpeace had accumulated over 80,000 comments, easily shattering the world record. 

Energy-hungry data centers are one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity consumption in countries like the United States, and worldwide are responsible for about the same volume of carbon emissions as the global aviation industry.  Yet many companies building new centers, such as Facebook and Google, cater to a demographic increasingly concerned about climate change and other impacts of fossil fuels.  Polls show that in the US at least, large majorities of people between ages 18-29 are worried about issues like climate change and reliance on foreign oil.  This creates a conundrum for companies the want to appeal to young customers but rely on huge amounts of energy to support their activities.

The obvious solution, advocated by Greenpeace, is to power data centers with clean, renewable electricity.  Google already seems to have chosen this strategy: some of the company’s biggest data centers now run on hydropower, and Google is also making massive investments in wind and solar projects to meet its electricity needs.  In contrast Facebook has made no concerted effort to address where its energy comes from, focusing instead on designing data centers to be as efficient as possible.  Though such actions have potential to reduce Facebook’s carbon footprint, they still leave open the possibility that what power the company does use will come from dirty fossil fuels.

To take a case in point, Facebook is building a new data center in Prineville, Oregon, that will buy power from utility giant PacifiCorp.  PacifiCorp generates 83% of its electricity from coal, fueling criticism that Facebook isn’t taking its carbon impact seriously.  Coal is the dirtiest of all conventional fossil fuels when burned, and is responsible for 80% of carbon emissions from the US electricity grid.

Thus the Greenpeace Unfriend Coal campaign, which challenges Facebook to meet its growing energy needs with clean electricity.  The campaign in the US first began to pick up momentum early last year, but the world record attempt is one of the most ambitious and creative tactics Greenpeace has used to get Facebook’s attention.  On Wednesday Greenpeace activists stood outside Facebook’s Palo Alto, California headquarters with a giant scrolling screen showing new Facebook comments as they came in on Greenpeace’s post.  By noon on Wednesday the world record had already been broken

“In places as diverse as Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin, Facebook is helping to foster activism and foment reform,” said Greenpeace campaigner Casey Harrel. “This world record shows that people want Facebook to lead a new energy revolution by committing to phase out coal and power its transformative services with clean, safe renewable energy.”

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Hundreds Rally for a Coal Free Washington

February 21, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Last week more than five hundred residents of the state of Washington converged in the capitol city of Olympia to push for environmental priorities—including proposed legislation that would end coal burning in the state over the next several years.  If these activists get their way, Washington could become the next state in the US to fully embrace a clean energy future free from the pollution caused by coal. 

For this year’s Environmental Lobby Day in Washington, environmentally concerned citizens from Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Vancouver and other communities around the state came to the capitol to ask legislators to support policies that make the air safe to breathe, protect waterways from pollution, and ensure the health of natural ecosystems.  Sponsored by the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership of twenty-five environmental organizations in Washington, Environmental Lobby Day is an annual statewide event.  However this year one of the Coalition’s chosen priorities made Environmental Lobby Day a moment of national significance. 

Environmental groups have set their sights on phasing out the burning of coal in Washington—a move that would put the state on the forefront of the fight against climate change and pollution.  The Coal Free Future for Washington bill, which is now being considered by Washington’s House Environment Committee, would gradually transition the state off reliance on Washington’s only coal plant, the TransAlta facility located near the city of Centralia.  Closing the TransAlta Plant would make Washington one of the first states to end coal combustion within its borders, and would establish a precedent for other states seeking to reduce their reliance on dirty fossil fuels.

“Washington stands at a crossroads,” said Chris Gamble, a graduate student at University of Washington who spoke at a press conference on Tuesday.  “We can continue to rely on dirty coal power, or embrace the clean energy of the future.”

In addition to environmental organizations, public health groups like Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and faith organizations like Ecumenical Ministries are supporting the push for a coal free future.  Student groups at colleges and universities around the state are organizing support for the transition off coal, and three student governments have passed resolutions urging the TransAlta Coal Plant by replaced with clean energy.

The TransAlta Coal Plant is Washington’s single largest source of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury pollution.  Its two smokestacks also emit sulfur dioxide, arsenic, lead, and many other toxic compounds.  The health impacts of pollution from coal plants like TransAlta include asthma and other respiratory illnesses, as well as heart disease, cancer, and damage to the nervous system.  Thus the debate over the coal plant’s future has become a matter that is as much about public health as it is about climate change.

On Tuesday the Washington House Environment Committee held a hearing on the Coal Free Future bill, taking public testimony both from supporters and from those who oppose the bill.  The committee is expected to vote on the bill Thursday; meanwhile a similar piece of legislation has been introduced in the Washington Senate. 

If passed into law, the bill would end coal combustion at TransAlta completely in 2020, with important interim targets for reducing coal use along the way.  The 2020 closure of the plant would be achieved by in that year requiring that existing power plants in Washington be held to the same pollution standards which new plants are already required to meet under state law.  Though standard would theoretically be applied to all existing power plants in Washington, TransAlta is the only power plant in the state dirty enough to be affected.

Photo credit: Robert Ashworth

150th New Coal Plant Cancelled in US

February 8, 2011- Nick Engelfried

When Purdue University announced last week it is cancelling plans to build a new campus coal plant, it marked a monumental victory for environmentalists and defenders of public health.  The Purdue plant was the 150th new coal plant to be cancelled since then-Vice President Dick Cheney unrolled plans to build a new fleet of coal-fired power plants in 2001.  Coal plants are a major source of carbon dioxide, mercury, soot, and other pollutants in the United States, so the end of the coal rush is good news for the environment and human health.

“The pollution from coal plants is making us sick, worsening asthma, stifling childhood development and cutting short thousands of lives,” said Verena Owen, volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.  “Phasing out coal is essential to cleaning up our air and water, and protecting our families.”

The Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest environmental groups in the United States, has played an important roll in defeating proposed coal plants.  In the past two years not a single new coal plant has broken ground in the US, and the majority of those proposed for construction since 2001 have been cancelled.  Many utilities and energy companies have pulled the plug on coal projects due to public pressure at the state and local level, as concerned citizens have turned out to public hearings and other public venues to express their concerns about pollution. 

The falling cost of cleaner energy alternatives, like renewables and natural gas, has also made coal a less attractive investment.  In addition new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations intended to protect public health are likely to increase the cost of burning coal and have added a new incentive for utilities to switch to cleaner options.  The Obama administration’s EPA is moving to update pollution limits for coal plants for the first time in years, with the aim of making toxicity standards consistent with the latest science on pollution health effects.

Yet while the effort to halt construction of new coal plants is nearing completion, there is still the question of what to do about the six hundred or so coal-fired power plants that already exist in the United States.  If all or most of these plants continue to operate indefinitely, it will be probably be impossible to limit the effects of climate change.  Meanwhile pollution from the plants contributes to asthma, heart disease, respiratory illness, and other health problems in nearby communities.  Buoyed by their success in stopping new coal plants, environmental groups are moving to take on the existing coal fleet—and have already had many successes.

Thanks to pressure from the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other organization, states like Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona have announced they will retire major coal units and replace them with cleaner energy sources.  Early retirement dates have already been unveiled for more than fifty US coal plants.  A significant number of these are coal power units located on college or university campuses, where students have taken the lead in pressuring their administrations to shift to clean energy.  While Purdue was the only university in the country planning to build a new coal plant, close to a dozen schools have announced they will be retiring existing coal units. 

“The way people, businesses, governments and schools think about energy has shifted,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. “It is clear that clean energy technologies—ones that don’t spew life-threatening pollution into our air and water—are the way to a prosperous, secure energy future.”

Photo credit: Sol Young

EPA Vetoes Mountaintop Removal Mine Permit

January 15, 2011, In a move cheered by environmentalists, on Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed a permit for the largest proposed mountaintop removal coal mine in the country.  This marked the first time the EPA has made use of its authority under the Clean Water Act to overturn permits granted to mountaintop removal mines by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The Corps of Engineers had originally granted a permit for the Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

Environmental groups immediately praised the EPA for acting to protect communities in West Virginia from environmental and health effects of coal mining.  Mountaintop removal, which is practiced exclusively in the Appalachian Mountains, is an especially destructive form of mining that involves removing mountaintops with explosives to expose underground coal deposits.  Rubble from mountaintop removal sites is often dumped into nearby valleys and streams, contaminating the water with heavy metals and other toxins.  The Clean Water Act gives the EPA authority to deny mountaintop removal projects that threaten the drinking water supplies of nearby communities.

“We applaud the EPA for following the law and the science and acting to protect the nation’s wildlife and the citizens of Appalachia from the devastation of mountaintop removal,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Mountaintop-removal coal mining must end, and today the agency took a historic step in the right direction.”

Mountaintop removal mining has become more common in West Virginia and other Appalachian states as easily accessible coal reserves have run out.  Though the practice makes it possible to cost-effectively retrieve coal buried deep inside of mountains, it comes with heavy environmental costs and employs fewer people than other types of coal mining.  Over the past several years environmental groups have urged Congress and the EPA to ban the practice of mountaintop removal and help affected states develop clean energy resources.

When the Obama administration took office in 2009, many activists hoped the EPA would end mountaintop removal immediately.  Though that did not happen, the agency has been gradually taking steps to curtail the practice.  When the EPA opened a public comment period on the Spruce Mine, 30,000 people submitted comments urging the project be vetoed.  If allowed to move forward, the Spruce Mine would have destroyed 2,300 acres of forest and buried close to seven miles of valley streams. 

According to Rory McIlmoil, author of a report on mountaintop removal commissioned by the Rainforest Action Network, “The impacts to the environment and surrounding communities that would result from the proposed mine were studied by EPA and independent researchers in great detail, and all of the studies concluded that the proposed operation would result in unacceptable adverse impacts.”

 Environmental groups are urging the EPA to continue to invoke its Clean Water Act authority and veto permits for other mountaintop removal mines.  “Forty years of surface mining have kept the region locked in poverty and devastated the health of people and the environment,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Curry, referring to the impacts on Appalachia.  “The Obama administration must ban mountaintop removal and fund the creation of a green economy in this beautiful region.”

Other groups, worried that a new administration might overturn the Obama EPA’s efforts to slow mountaintop removal, have also urged Congress to pass a new law making the practice permanently illegal.  The group I Love is pushing bills in both houses of Congress that would do this—the Clean Water Protection Act in the House of Representatives, and Appalachia Restoration Act in the Senate.  “We need Congress to follow the leadership of the EPA by making these protections permanent,” said an email from I Love, soon after the Spruce Mine veto was announced.

Photo credit: Silvia Alba

Delaware Coal Plant Responsible for Cancer Cluster

January 5, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

Burning coal for electricity isn’t just a major contributor to climate change, it can also be deadly to public health.  That’s the take-home message from the State of Delaware’s recent discovery that pollution from the Indian River coal plant in the city of Millsboro, is contributing to a cancer cluster in the surrounding area.  Residents of the Delaware communities of Millsboro, Frankford, Dagsboro, Georgetown, Selbyville, and Ocean View are 17% more likely to have cancer than the average for the entire US, a Delaware Division of Public Health study finds. 

State officials first began examining whether the Indian River plant was contributing to higher cancer rates after years of pressure from residents of the Millsboro area, who believe their health is being affected by the power plant.  Burning coal produces a large number of toxic compounds that contribute to cancer, including mercury, lead, nickel, hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid, and other chemicals.  Older coal plants are especially likely to be emitting unsafe levels of pollutants, and the Indian River plant is one of the dirtiest power plants in Delaware. 

However other communities across the US are similarly feeling the effects of coal pollution.  The identification of a cancer cluster around the Indian River plant is just one more indicator of growing public awareness that burning coal threatens public health.  According to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), coal pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and cancer.  In order to improve public health, PSR recommends slashing US dependence on coal for fuel, ramping up investments in renewable energy, and passing national climate legislation while enforcing the existing clean air act to curb pollution from power plants.

Coal’s impact on health in turn affects the economy.  A report sponsored by the Clean Air Council, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and others shows the nation’s dirtiest coal plants, which haven’t yet installed the same pollution controls required on newer plants, cost businesses around $6 billion annually by negatively impacting worker health.  Lost work days, lower productivity, and higher insurance costs all contribute to economic loses that could be avoided if workers were healthier. 

The same report concludes a US Environmental Protection Agency proposal to more strictly regulate coal pollution crossing state boundaries will have economic and health benefits that far outweigh the costs.  This proposed Transport Rule would require coal plants in thirty-one states to install more effective pollution controls that protect public health.  It’s one of several EPA proposals to more strictly limit pollution from coal plants and other sources.  Since EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson took office in 2009, the agency has been updating pollution regulations the rules on the books consistent with the latest health science—something the EPA is required to do periodically under the Clean Air Act.

If the EPA is allowed to move forward with the Transport Rule and new limits on mercury, toxic coal ash, and other coal pollutants, the benefits for public health would be significant.  The new rules would protect communities in many states from the kind of health risks found in the Millsboro area cancer cluster.  Yet some members of Congress—mostly Republicans but also some Democrats—argue the new regulations should not be allowed to move forward.  Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan), incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says his party will work to prevent new environmental and health regulations taking effect.  Upton says the EPA rules would unnecessarily harm jobs in the coal industry.

With a new Republican majority taking office in the House of Representatives this month, the fight over whether energy companies should be required to reduce pollution from coal plants is likely to be long and heated.  It also has implications for the health of communities all over the United States.  This includes residents of Delaware’s Millsboro area, where coal pollution has already contributed to cancer and other health problems for years.

Photo credit: Darren Blackburn