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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ashes "R" Us

Coal contains more than carbon and organic compounds, and the mining of coal adds material that cannot be fully separated from coal at reasonable cost. Therefore, burning of coal generates or liberates harmful compounds that encompass a long list of elements: sulfur, arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, molybdenum, zinc, selenium, radium, uranium, and thorium, among others. Some of these compounds inevitably go up the stack and into the air; sulfur oxides, for example, are the primary cause of acid rain. Other harmful compounds remain in the ash that accumulates at higher concentrations in furnaces. Users of nuclear energy have never found a good way to handle nuclear waste, and users of coal have never found a good way to handle ash, either. For the most part, high-volume users of coal simply store the ash in a convenient place.

The release of ash into the Dan River is not the first or largest. For hundreds of years we have tolerated toxic ash and all the other disadvantages of coal such as destruction of habitat by mining practices and death or disease among coal miners. Why? Because we want inexpensive energy from coal. Nearly all of us consume electricity in prodigious amounts -- and we ourselves are therefore accountable for the consequences of our desires. Accusing government or utilities of misfeasance or nonfeasance misses the point. It seems to me that we the public want these entities to hide from us all the unpleasant aspects of their business. We choose not to travel to West Virginia, western Virginia, and eastern Kentucky to see where the coal comes from or to talk with the people who mine it. The generating plants themselves are in obscure locations, highly secured. Only when something goes wrong do we hear about them, even though on a good day they release tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

When I turn on the light switch in the morning, when I relax indoors at 72F when it's 100F outside, I am an active participant in the milieu that led to the Dan River accident. We knew, or reasonably should have known, how ugly is the electricity generated from coal.