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New Yorkers Blow the Whistle on Dirty Coal

With more than eight million people packed into just 300 square miles, New York relies on resources from other areas to sustain its population. We pump our drinking water in from the cool streams of the Catskill Mountains—a billion gallons per day of water so clean it doesn’t even need to be filtered. The electricity we use is also generated many miles outside the city—far enough away that it’s difficult to mentally connect power plant to light switch. But even further from the minds of most New Yorkers is the source of that electricity. More often than not, it is coal.

Photos by Wilbur O. Araujo.
Photos by Wilbur O. Araujo.

For a group of New York environmentalists, the toxins and pollution from coal processing aren’t just problems for places like Pennsylvania and Tennessee where the coal is mined—it is a problem that concerns everyone and demands immediate attention. So when the New York Coal Trading Association held their annual banquet in the city on March 5, nearly 100 activists braved freezing temperatures to get one message across: coal kills.

“We were basically there to blow the whistle and let the industry know that New Yorkers are aware that coal-burning is accelerating climate change,” says Dan Miner, chair of the New York City chapter of the Sierra Club. “Another point of the rally was public education, to draw the attention of ordinary New Yorkers walking down the street.”

The protestors were hard to miss in front of Times Square’s Millennium Broadway Hotel armed with signs—one volunteer dressed in a polar bear costume—chanting “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Toxic sludge has got to go!” Some held jars containing “real live” toxic sludge from last December’s disastrous coal ash spill in Tennessee.

Grace Magee, a freshman at Queensborough Community College and member of the New York Public Interest Research Group—NYPIRG, a student-led environmental organization that co-sponsored the rally with the Sierra Club—helped create the chants and distribute them to protestors on cards. “It was really cold, but a lot of fun,” she says. “Some people walking by joined in, lots of cars honked. That’s what we wanted—to get attention, to get the word out. Hopefully they know we’re on to them and they feel really bad about themselves.”

By “they” she means the self-proclaimed “who’s who of the coal industry” inside the banquet hall of the Millennium Broadway, the people with the money who keep the industry thriving. And they should have no shortage of reasons to feel bad about themselves.

Coal is an extremely dirty fuel. It is responsible for 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, making it the largest source of global warming pollution in the country. Coal-fired power plants also emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, in addition to soot, which have been linked to asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer.

Coal plants are also the largest source of human-generated mercury pollution in the country. Mercury is a known neurotoxin—particularly hazardous to children—that damages the brain and nervous system with regular exposure.

 The dangers of coal don’t end there: from extraction to combustion, from start to finish, it is a dirty process. We’ve begun only recently to pay attention to where the coal comes from or where the solid waste goes after the coal has been burned.

Mountaintop removal mining—blowing the tops off mountains to get at the coal beneath—has become a favored method of coal companies because it is quicker than traditional extraction. The process leaves surrounding communities with damaged homes, contaminated water, and scarred terrain replacing the formerly beautiful Appalachian landscape.

As the nation was reminded after the Tennessee coal ash spill in December, coal can still wreak havoc long after it has been burned. Each year, coal-fired power plants produce millions of tons of solid waste filled with toxic metals—coal ash sludge—which is then simply dumped in landfills or storage ponds: a disaster waiting to happen. After one of these ponds ruptured, more than a billion gallons of this sludge destroyed homes and contaminated the rivers of Harriman, Tennessee. The “who’s who” of the coal industry turned a blind eye to the disaster by downplaying the damage it caused and the potential health risks of the sludge. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the company that owns the power plant, also refused to pay for medical testing for the residents most directly impacted by the spill.

Industry proponents still refuse to admit that coal is dirty, however. They have gone so far as to dump millions of dollars into a campaign drawing attention to what they call “clean coal.” Within the industry, this can refer to any technology that reduces pollutants associated with coal combustion, but the term most commonly refers to carbon-capture-and-storage, or CSS, technology. With CSS, carbon dioxide emissions are captured and buried underground before they can be released into the atmosphere.

The technology is plagued with problems: it is expensive and likely not to be available on a large scale for decades. In addition, the carbon-capture process would require significant energy and wouldn’t resolve the mountaintop removal or sludge storage issues.

“Clean coal is a lie,” Miner says with a tinge of anger in his voice. “They don’t have that technology. The effort only delays what we need to do, which is move away from coal and keep it in the ground.” That is the goal of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Mark Kresowik, corporate accountability representative for the organization, has helped stop the construction of nearly two-thirds of the 150 new coal-fired power plants proposed in the past two years. Drawing a parallel between the decision-making processes within the coal industry to the ill-fated housing industry, he believes that investing in coal is more risky than ever economically. He notes, “The burning of coal has become remarkably expensive. We need to stop the creation of new plants and focus on energy efficiency, which will create millions of new jobs.”

The hopes of advocates for clean energy technology have been energized by the election of President Obama. Groups like NYPIRG and the Sierra Club believe that such technologies are ideal because they already exist, they save money and they’re environmentally friendly. They claim that the country could cut its electricity use by 30 percent by relying more on wind and solar power. Investing in these renewable energy sources entails significant economic benefits—new jobs will be created and costs will be eliminated because wind and sun are readily available, infinite resources. Just as important, and unlike coal-based electricity generation, clean energy doesn’t produce any harmful emissions.

Probably the biggest casualties of the transition to clean energy would be the coal financiers, the “who’s who” in black ties gathered at the Millennium Broadway Hotel. As the protestors’ chants warned: “Clean coal is a dirty joke. Watch your profits go up in smoke.”

New Yorkers may be far removed from the immediate negative effects of coal, but we are all impacted by the struggle. It isn’t difficult to empathize with people whose water supply has been contaminated, homes and communities have been destroyed, or health has been compromised.

Lauren Schuster, environmental campaign coordinator for NYPIRG, agrees, “You don’t have to do much to engage people on this issue. If you give them an avenue, it’s easy for them to get involved. It’s pretty clear.” The group is planning another anti-coal event for late April. And now that creating green jobs and curbing global warming have become prominent elements of President Obama’s economic policy, the fight against dirty coal should attract even more supporters. Because no matter where in the country, or the world for that matter, one thing is for certain: coal kills.


Nicole Greenfield

Nicole Greenfield writes about religion and about the environment. She lives in Greenpoint.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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