Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 12.24.14
Just Outside Washington


What to do about [dirty] coal

"There's a War on Coal " was a rallying cry from Mich McConnell in his bid for re-election. However, there should be a war on coal because coal is dirty. Unfortunately, people in the industry will be out of a job if the coal mines and fired power plants are shut down.

Currently in Kentucky there are about 12,000 jobs in the coal industry, which is less than one percent of Kentucky employment. Closing the coal mines would not be a big impact unless my job was one of those that disappeared. In any case, "we the people " should make arrangements to help those displaced to get better jobs.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that forty percent of the electricity in the U.S. is produced by coal-fired power plants. The Wall Street Journal says that the Obama administration is using EPA to wage the "War on Coal." The WSJ also says that closing the coal plants will raise the cost of electricity and that appears to be the case. Why is that true? It is true because electricity generated from coal is cheap and cheap for two reasons.

First, the coal mining industry is an old industry with old and obsolete infrastructure. It is an industry where the management is squeezing maximum profit with minimal investment and oversight. It is an industry that has used political manipulation to pollute the environment and avoid regulation.

Two recent examples:

    (1) Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia exploded in April 2010 killing twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site. An independent state investigation found Massey Energy directly responsible. Also, CEO, Don Blankenship, was indicted by a federal grand jury on four criminal counts, including conspiracy to violate safety laws, defrauding the federal government and securities fraud.
    (2) In January 2014 a Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River in Charleston WV spilled a toxic chemical, used for washing newly mined coal, into the river. The chemical MCHM (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol ) poisoned the drinking water supply for 300,000 residents within nine counties in the Charleston area. The causes were bad location, old equipment, poor maintenance and bad management.
Second, the coal, power generation industry is an old industry with old and obsolete infrastructure, which has been operating under exemptions to pollution requirements for years. These exemptions were mandated by Congress and include:
    (1) air pollution rules that allow greater emissions of particulates, sulfur, mercury, lead, arsenic and other pollutants from old plants than from new ones. These cause health problems and drift downwind to communities with no power plants. The State of North Carolina sued TVA because air emissions, from eleven of TVA's coal-fired power plants located in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky, crossed state lines and contributed to North Carolina's air pollution.
    (2) Coal ash from power plants has not been subject to the solid waste regulations for regular waste (40 CFR Parts 239 through 259) or for hazardous waste (40 CFR Parts 260 through 279). The Duke Energy disposes of coal ash in ponds near the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. In February 2014 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash containing sulfur, mercury, lead, arsenic etc., along with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, were released into the Dan River. This is not the first major spill from coal ash ponds. In addition, the toxic chemicals seep into the ground water because these ponds have no liners like those used in landfills where household solid waste is disposed.
EPA is now addressing these problems and proposing more stringent regulations. Friends of Coal in Congress will oppose this when they decide to come back to work. Campaign contributions will cross palms. The U.S. has cleaner alternatives to generate electricity; natural gas burns cleaner and leaves no solid waste. Solar and wind power are even cleaner. A comparison was done by EIA of the cost of power from new generation facilities: coal is $95.6 per MWh compared to $66.3 for natural gas, $80.3 for wind and $130 for solar. Those costs are with no subsidies or tax funny business.