The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has just uncovered yet another reason not to love so called “clean coal:” the agency has determined that coal mining caused the ground to shift under the Ryerson Station Dam in Greene County, which in turn caused increased seepage and cracking in the concrete structure. The 62-acre lake behind the dam was drained as soon as the damage was discovered in 2005, to prevent possible collapse and flooding.
So, add massive infrastructure failure to the growing list of messes that “clean” coal leaves behind, including mountaintop coal mining and coal ash spills, and permanent disasters such as the underground coal mine fire that has bedeviled the Pennsylvania town of Centralia since 1962. New technology may scrub more pollutants from power plants, but an army of scrubbers won’t make coal a truly clean, sustainable fuel for the future.
Pennsylvania, Floods, and Dams
Pennsylvania has had its share of disasters, particularly floods. In 1889 the state suffered a genuinely Hurricane Katrina-scale tragedy when a neglected dam at a private lake gave way. The waters demolished everything in their path and flooded the city of Johnstown 14 miles away, killing more than 2,200 people (more than 1,830 people died in Hurricane Katrina). It’s little wonder that state agencies reacted so quickly when damage to the Ryerson Station Dam was uncovered. And though Pennsylvania is historically one of coal’s heartlands, the Keystone State isn’t shy when it comes to promoting cleaner, more sustainable energy that is more harmonious with the state’s important tourism and agricultural industries, as well as less destructive to its population centers.
Underground Coal Mining and Surface Structures
Short version: they don’t mix, and Pennsylvania’s DEP has the pictures to prove it. The agency’s website features detailed information on the devastating effects that underground coal mining can have on buildings above and near underground mines. That also applies to structures some distance away. One key element in DEP’s Ryerson Station Dam investigation was the finding that underground mining can cause the ground to shift at much greater distances than previously believed, and the agency has found similar instances at other coal fields throughout Appalachia.
New York City, Natural Gas and Dams
The impact of fossil fuel harvesting on dams and water supply is not limited to coal mining. The Marcellus Shale formation (not to be confused with the Marsellus Wallace character) is being tapped for natural gas through a method called hydraulic fracturing, in which a brine of water and proprietary chemicals is pumped underground. The practice has lead to numerous water quality problems and has raised a red flag in New York City, which gets its water from reservoirs on land within the Marcellus formation. It brings a new urgency to the push for sustainable alternatives, including the dairy industry’s effort to harvest biogas from cow manure.
Image: Floodwaters by jimf0390 on flickr.com
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.