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"Clean Coal" Looking More Like a 21st Century Dinosaur

US EPA cites "irreversible" damage in moving to revoke mountaintop coal mining permit under Clean Water ActThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems to be making up for lost time when it comes to enforcing the Clean Water Act.  That includes closing the door on mountaintop coal mining, also known rather delicately as mountaintop removal.  In reality there is nothing delicate about it.  The practice involves blowing hundreds of mountains to smithereens in Appalachia, one of the richest ecosystems in North America, not to mention burying hundreds of miles of pristine streams and creating vast lagoons of toxic coal ash sludge.  Sort of gives the lie to that “clean coal” gimmick, right?


It is seriously hard to believe that 21st century America can’t think of a more sustainable way to harvest fuel, but there you have it – at least for now.  As reported by Ken Ward’s blog Coal Tattoo in the West Virginia Gazette (by way of Brad Johnson at Think Progress), the EPA is moving aggressively to veto the permit of Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia, finding “significant and irreversible damage” under the Clean Water Act.

Coal and Sustainable Energy

Actually, 21st century America can think of a more sustainable way to harvest fuel – many of them.  Just for starters there’s solar energy of course, and entire states could power themselves with offshore wind power.  Heck, we’re even making biogas from cow manure and renewable fuel from sewage sludge.  Much of the new sustainable fuel activity is in development but a lot of it is starting to come online, forestalling the need to build new coal fired power plants.  In addition, conversions like coal-to-biomass are starting to take existing coal fired power plants out of the picture.

Coal and Green Jobs

Compared to conventional underground mining, mountaintop removal is not a labor intensive operation, so it’s little wonder that the increase in mountaintop removal operations has coincided with a decrease in coal mining jobs in Appalachia.  It’s the good old fashioned  triple whammy of an out of date industry: economic depression, environmental destruction, and severe community health impacts.  The good news is, it’s only a matter of time before Appalachia takes its cue from the Rust Belt and turns to the growing market in renewable energy — possibly helped by a new federal program that seeks to turn derelict industrial sites into renewable energy facilities that create new green jobs.

Blowing Up the U.S. for Coal to Feed Overseas Power Plants

Err…yep.  That’s just what we’ve been doing.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Appalachian coal is a “significant percentage of the world export market (pdf).”  Just before the 2008 global market crash there was a huge price runup due to high overseas demand for Appalachian coal, and even in the midst of a global downturn last fall the markets cranked out a “scorching” price primarily due to high demand continuing overseas for Appalachian coal.  As the U.S races into more renewable fuels, domestic demand for coal will begin to slow, but the overseas market is pretty much guaranteeing that mountaintop coal removal will continue to devastate important regions of the United States — unless the U.S. starts to stick up for itself.  The next step for the EPA in vetoing the Spruce Mine No. 1 permit is a public hearing process so let’s hear what the coal company has to say about preserving health and prosperity in this great country of ours.

Image: Coal pile by jpmueller99 on

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Tina 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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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