Not only am I risking my job to address this issue so directly, I'm also risking any credibility I have here at dailyKos. Many of you are going to hate parts of this just as much as my employers hate the rest.
I'm not even sure what I hope to get out of it. A bit of catharsis, maybe. Or the chance to do something about a problem that I've had a very real hand in creating. I guess I'm hoping for both those things.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about coal.
It wasn't as if coal was a newcomer to the area. Both of my grandfather's had worked in underground coal mines. Even forty years after their time in the mines, you could still see the bits of shale and limestone stuck under their skin by roof falls and explosions gone bad. They were both veterans of the union wars. I don't use the word "wars" lightly. They'd both been shot at and pushed around by hired thugs. They both knew what it was like to receive your pay in the form of "scrip" - little metal tokens that could only be redeemed at the company store.
Fig. 1: Mining "Scrip"
My father-in-law had it even worse. When a mining car full of coal broke loose, he was pinned up against a "pillar"(a block of coal left in place to hold up the roof). Between the heavy steel of the car and the rough coal, the accident broke every single rib, punctured both of his lungs, crushed his pelvis, broke both legs, and both arms. He was declared dead right there in the mines, but he was such an enormously strong bull of a man that he actually survived to go underground again (this was actually the second time he'd been declared dead, but that's another story).
In my youth, I watched many of those underground mines give way to enormous surface mining operations - strip mines, as they're better know (though the industry hates that term). These operations employ fewer men, and replace them with machines of truly Brobdingnagian scale. Draglines taller than a twenty story building. Trucks that make an sixteen wheeler look like something made by Tonka. It was these surface operations that stripped away the strawberry fields.
In my own time, I went to work in the mines myself. I drove a water truck at a surface mine (a water truck runs around all day at about 3mph, spraying water on the gravel haulage roads to cut down on dust). I did general labor underground, walking the conveyer belts, building stoppings to control the air flow.
Back on the surface, I worked as a driller's assistant and a blaster, loading holes full of the same Ammonium Nitrate and diesel fuel compound that served Tim McVeigh's horrible purpose in Oklahoma City. Only my targets were hillsides, not office buildings. On a good summer day, I might load four hundred pounds of explosives each into over a hundred holes the earth, pausing to backfill each with a hand shovel and tamp them down with a long wooden rod. The rhythm of that work is so ingrained, I could step into the pit today. Fifteen shovels of broken rock. Bag of explosive. Slide a primer down on a primer cord. Another bag. More earth. Another bag. Primer. Bag. Earth. Tamp down, cut the cord, move to the next hole.
Fig. 2: Modern day blasting in Wyoming
At the end of the day, I would set off God's own explosion by pulling the trigger on a simple starter's pistol. Whole hillsides would buck and leap. Broken columns of rock would tumble into the pit, ready to be removed by the machines that would uncover the coal. It's this job that makes the whole thing possible. Only the accidental discovery of Ammonium Nitrate (in a disaster that destroyed much of Texas City, TX) gave mining an explosive cheap enough to do surface mining. Without this, there would be no strip mines.
I was a lot more fortunate than most. I took the money I made from just a short time in mining and turned it into a degree from a state school - something that my parents and grandparents had never had a chance to do (my mother had graduated as valedictorian of her high school, but still had to go to work the day after her graduation).
I came out of school with a couple of degrees, but the only one I've really put to use is one in geology. For three decades, I was either an exploration geologist for the coal industry, or a consultant to that same industry. There is hardly a single state in this country that I haven't been to, looking for coal. Alaska? Been there. From the middle of the desert Southwest, to the Appalachians, to a scenic little spot on the Oregon coast, I've led teams that drilled into the ground, looking for coal. I've worked for the industry my whole adult life. And folks, I work for them right now. I might no longer be pulling the trigger that moves the earth, but I'm no less involved. When you think of the coal industry, think of me.
Sorry to give you such a lengthy piece of biography, but I felt it was necessary to establish my bona fides before I started some straight talk on the subject of coal. If you learn something about coal out of this, that's about all I can hope for. If you think my vested interest in the industry has blinded me to what's really going on... you're probably spot on. Feel free to slap me down.
What's right with coal
Some of you would likely say nothing. But I want to tell you, from nearly thirty years of personal experience, and generations of my own family to speak to the subject: this is an industry that's much better than it used to be.
Some of those old surface mines around my house were so devoid of life, we called them "the desert." Even that was flattery. They were more like the barren "forbidden zone" from the Planet of the Apes than any natural desert. There were pools of standing water so acid, they would boil if you tossed in a chunk of limestone. There were piles of slate, piles of coal slurry heaped on the ground, and cracks in those slurry piles that let out noxious steam from fires burning in the earth. Quasi-canyons were left behind, with the rusty rotting corpses of mining machinery still standing in stagnant pools. Though as a child all of this stuff had a certain weird, otherworldly appeal, it's easy now to recognize it for what it was - a horror show. It was hideous.
I'm telling you, it's not like that today. Reclamation is meticulous, so well done I don't even expect you to believe it. In a typical situation, the topsoil and a good part of the subsoil are removed from the area and stored before mining begins. Large surface rocks that are part of the natural landscape are also removed. A biological census determines the species mix for every acre of land to be mined. When mining is complete, the surface is returned to a condition as close as possible to the original contours. Streambeds are replaced layer by layer. Topsoil is restored. Those surface rocks are put back just where they were. A plant mix that hits the original species mix down to the most esoteric weed is put in place. In fact, the mining industry keeps several greenhouses in business to produce everything from twisted pinyon pine to herbs that are sacred to Hopi healers. The reclamation is, by far, the most expensive cost in surface mining. The people involved are almost to a person folks with degrees in wildlife biology, fisheries, agriculture, and related fields. These people think of themselves as environmentalists. They're good at their work. The results are nothing less than amazing.
I can guarantee you, absolutely guarantee, that if I put you in a surface mining area of Wyoming or New Mexico or Arizona, you would not be able to tell me what land had been mined, and what land had not. I know you still don't believe it. But I tried.
Fig. 3: Wildlife on reclaimed mine land (and yes, it was that rocky to begin with, it's in Arizona)
Safety is another area where mining has a well-deserved reputation for nastiness. Remember those stories I told about my grandfathers and father-in-law? That was only scratching the surface. Hundreds of men a year used to die in the mines. Until the 1970's, most underground mines were "conventional" mines using the "drilling and shooting" method. That meant drilling holes in the face of the coal, planting dynamite, yelling "fire in the hole!" and running like hell. That, folks, is not a healthy working environment. There were gas explosions, roof falls, bad air... it was bad enough that Pennsylvania alone has lost 51,483 men underground.
But again, it's not like that any more. Ventilation of the mines is now done by incredibly powerful fans that circulate clear air right up to the mining face. No mine in the US today uses dynamite. Instead, they use either "continous miners" (machines that cut through the coal with a device that looks like a huge thread spool covered in teeth) or "longwall machines" (which intentionally let the roof fall while holding open a safe pocket with steel plates). Miners in indoctrinated in safety every hour of the day. The average miner spends hours in safety training each week. Companies police safety now at a level that government inspectors of the past never even approached. The results of this drive to safety and improved equipment are clear. In 2002, 29 coal miners died in the United States. China, which still uses the old methods and whose safety efforts are about fifty years behind the US, lost more than 6000 people in the same year.
Coal mining is not only not one of the top ten dangerous jobs, it's not even close. In fact, you're more likely to be injured working in a fast food restaurant than in a coal mine (in the United States, at least. Just don't ask me to get near a mine in China). And the reduction in deaths don't stop with those unfortunate enough to die underground. One of my grandfather's died, in part, from "black lung." My father-in-law is living with that same disease today. Black lung is caused by breathing in tiny particles of coal and has killed more miners than all the mine accidents put together. But again, there's a happy ending - the circulation of air through modern underground mines is so good, that the air is actually better than that in many office environments.
Finally, I want to hit the point that most people object to (and rightly so) when they think of coal: pollution. Coal pollutes. There's no getting around that. It's a fossil fuel, and burning it releases not only CO2, but all the trace elements that have been trapped in the coal for 70 - 320 million years. Coal often contains a good deal of sulfur, either organic sulfur from the plants that make up the coal, or sulfur in the form of iron pyrite (FeS2), more commonly known as "fool's gold." If you burn the coal, that sulfur combines with oxygen and goes up the stack as sulfur dioxide. Then it mixes with water and comes down as acid rain. That acid rain is directly to blame for the death of trees, lakes, and whole ecosystems downwind from plants burning high sulfur coal in the Midwest.
Remember how I said my mother went to work right out of high school? For most of her life, that work was for the Tennessee Valley Authority. She worked on a huge coal-burning plant through its construction phase and through years of its operation. Flecks of acid-laden ash burned the paint from her car in the parking lot. Fumes and smoke made the plant almost unlivable. The plant responded by building a taller smokestack, exporting their toxins to another state.
But again, this is a place where the industry has really gotten it's act together. A new coal-fired plant has about as much in common with that beast my mother helped build as a Prius does with an Edsel. I'm not talking the semi-mythical "clean coal technology," I'm talking about the plants that have gone up in the last ten years, and those that are still being built.
Fig. 4: Projected emissions for a new plant under construction in Illinois.
The industry has switched much of its consumption to lower-sulfur fuels from western states. Plant owners have also built new plants under stringent guidelines that get tougher year over year. None of this does a thing to stop the ungodly amounts of CO2 that coal plants are producing, but when it comes to the rest of the mix, they're really doing a decent job.
Fig. 5: Pollution from cars vs. electricity
This is especially true if you compare coal to the pollution put out by cars. The next time someone suggest that "electric cars just move the pollution around," point them at this chart. It's a whole lot easier to clean up a few hundred large, stationary sources of pollution than it is to tackle hundreds of millions of tiny, mobile ones. Pollution from cars has gone up as the number of cars has gone up. Pollution from power plants has decreased, even while electrical production has gone up.
What's Wrong with Coal?
Okay, so I've revealed myself as a complete corporate stooge. A spokesmen for the Man. No doubt I have Dick Cheney on speed dial and eat baby bald eagles for breakfast.
There's not much in what I've said above that's likely to upset my boss, or his boss, or his boss . But what I'm about to say sure will.
The coal industry has done all those neat things. They've made it safer. Made it cleaner. Reclaimed the land. Why did they do it? Because we friggin' made them do it, that's why.
Actually, I'll give them a good deal of credit on the safety front. They figured out that keeping their employees alive was all around good for business, and the companies generally have much more stringent safety standards than the government. But on every other issue, they didn't move an inch voluntarily.
That "forbidden zone" around my childhood home? That's the "pre-law" land. As in the "before the surface mine reclamation act made us put down a huge cash bond that that we can't get back until we fix everything" land. Before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. If mining companies had not been required to essentially put themselves deep in debt every time they mined, and only get their money back when things meet the standards, they would have happily left more open pits and acid pools.
Those nice statistics on reduction in pollution? That's the Clean Air Act at work. If the government hadn't stepped in to tell them to stop, they would have never even heard the word "scrubber." Every move they made - from mining lower sulfur coal to the sophisticated steps put in place to cut down on particulate emissions - was done directly to meet the mandates of the Act. If the numbers on that graph look good to you, note that on average the industry has done exactly as it was required to, and not one bit more.
Every evidence is that they can mine coal safely, they can mine coal without destroying the land, and they can clean up emissions. They can make a profit at it, too, as the major companies are breaking all records while meeting these requirements.
But they won't lift one damn finger unless we make them. Without regulation, they would backslide in a heartbeat, and without more regulation, they won't take another step.
As proof, I offer the two greatest sins the industry has going: mountaintop removal and older power plants.
Mountaintop removal is a surface mining method. Remember all those things I said about the meticulous restoration done in surface mines? Now forget them. In mountaintop removal, none of that applies. Mountaintop removal is done in areas where a large coal seam is relatively near the top of a slope. In the old days, they might have stripped a narrow band around the outside of the hill, then underground mined the rest. But with mountaintop removal, they simply cut the head off the whole hill. In the process, they dump rubble, slurry and waste into the surrounding streams. The ecology the area is ruined. Forever. You can not only tell where mountaintop removal has occurred, you can tell it from an airplane. From a satellite. It's a hideous, irreversible practice that utterly ruins the land involved.
This practice is generally limited to the Appalachians, but that doesn't mean it's small potatoes. Estimates are that as much as 25% of West Virginia's mountains have already been leveled by this practice. Uncounted miles of streams have been ruined. The natural beauty of the state is being whittled away at an amazing rate.
Mountaintop removal was supposed to be illegal. A provision of the Clean Water Act would have prevented the dumping of the spoiled material into streams. However, the Bush administration jumped in at the last minute, and gutted the act through executive order. If you want one clear example of Bush's inimical stance toward nature, look no further.
As if destroying the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act wasn't enough, Bush also stepped in to cripple the Clean Air Act with his "Clear Skies" program. Under the Clean Air Act, older power plants were forbidden from expanding. The thought was that this would eventually bring these plants to end of life, forcing them to be replaced with new plants that meet the stringent new regulations. Note that this wasn't done as punishment to the power industry. They were done a favor. Every other industry had to meet the requirements as they appeared. Only coal-fired power plants were allowed to keep operating without cleaning up their act. So what did Bush do? Under his "Clear Skies" plan, he removed the provisions that limited these old, heavy pollution plants, allowing them to not only keep running for decades longer, but to actually expand their production.
Look back up there at that chart for a new power plant. Note how the pollution of this new plant looks tiny when compared to the current national average? That's because the old plants are still in there, belching out their loads of acid rain, mercury, and a thousand other toxins.
What should you do?
I'm asking two things of you.
First, bills will come before congress this summer to restore the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to the regulations as they existed before Bush ripped out the heart of this legislation. Back the restoration of these acts. Support Julia Bond and her organization. Support Appalachian Voices. These organizations are run by people local to the area, and they have a lot of respect from the people of West Virginia - miners included. Honestly, I think restoring the Clean Air Act is a nearly impossible fight under this administration and this congress. But I think that mountaintop removal is so insanely hideous that even Republicans will feel the heat to end this practice. Shine the light on this, people. Make it a priority. We can win this one.
You may find the second thing harder than the first. I want you to understand that the coal industry isn't going to go away any time soon. The United States has abundant coal reserves, and much of that coal can be mined using well understood, economical methods. Coal produces more than half the electricity in the country. I'm not asking you to stop fighting for reductions in CO2 production, or limits on pollution, or to let up on these guys one inch. Stay on top of them. Force them to adopt tougher and tougher regulations. I'll be right there with you. What has been accomplished is remarkable. I've no doubt that if we raise the bar again, they will find a way to get over it.
Thanks for listening. I think I do feel a little better (though I might need to take a few boxes in to work on Monday, just in case).