Scott Sklar

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Burning the Future

In Burning the Future: Coal in America, writer/director David Novack examines the explosive forces that have set in motion a groundswell of conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia.

Burning The Future: Coal in America
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Coal Q & A
Written by Scott Sklar   
May 02, 2008

Q:My friend and i are unable to find the exact chemical composition of coal in either books or the internet and were wondering if you could please help us out? Also if you know any information that would help us out regarding fossil fuels and the negative effects it would be greatly appreciated. : Amelia R, Queensland, Australia

A:Amelia. You ask a good question, because while many people are preoccupied with the carbon output of coal use, coal’s composition causes lots of other bad consequences that tend to be hidden from public view. One Web site in Australia lays out the basics, states, "Coal is a combustible carbonaceous rock, formed from accumulated vegetable matter that has been altered by decay and various amounts of heat and pressure over millions of years. Inter-layered with other sedimentary rocks, ... Coal varies widely in its composition. It is composed chiefly of rings of six carbon atoms joined together in an extremely complex composition of layered arrangements that have in them, not only hydrogen but significant amounts of oxygen and nitrogen. The structure also includes varying amounts of sulphur and other environmental pollutants. Up to one tenth of the total mass of coal can be material with no fuel value. .. The structure also includes varying amounts of sulphur and other environmental pollutants. Up to one tenth of the total mass of coal can be material with no fuel value. Coal is usually analysed for moisture, volatile matter fixed carbon and ash (proximate analysis - Figure 1). The sulphur and nitrogen content are important as emissions of their chemical oxides during coal burning can cause acid rain. Uncontrolled emissions resulted in widespread damage to forests and lakes in Europe, the USA and Canada"....

Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining covering 800 square miles already just in just the eastern USA. A direct consequence is that there have been 6,000 "valley fills” of debris from mountain tops in West Virginia and Kentucky. Since 1980, according to the National Mining Association, only 5% of the destroyed land has been returned to some kind of “economic development” such as wildlife habitat.

“Sludge impoundment” occurs behind dams in former valleys that become a source of toxic leaks, and dam failure is an historic fact. And when sludge is put into old underground coal mines, this contaminates ground water for drinking. Other issues involving coal is processing - very poisonous - and transport that poses risks.

According to the environmental groups in my State of Virginia, “The largest source of mercury pollution in Virginia is coal-fired power plants. In fact, according to the EPA, 19 Virginia power plants were responsible for 69 percent of in-state mercury emissions, far above the national average. The big utilities’ coal fired power plants are the largest single source of toxic mercury in Virginia. Already, 1 in 4 women tested in Virginia had high enough levels of mercury to put a child at risk for neurological development problems.

According to a east coast utility quoted in a Washington Post article, “. Between 1999 and 2005, Pepco officials point out, the price of coal climbed 150 percent, oil prices rose 300 percent and natural gas costs jumped 400 percent.” Washington Post.

I always point out that even before climate change entered our global awareness, burning coal emits carcinogens, mercury, and regulated emissions under the Clean Air Act (NOx, SO2, and particulates) in addition to carbon. Processing coal required lots of energy and water and the impact to the land is devastating. While mining deaths are always evident, US taxpayers still underwrite part of the costs of brown and black lung disease. I personally have met miners, seen the immediate impacts of mountaintop removal in terms of devastating stream and rivers, farmland, and homes and communities. When I hear clean coal advocates, even among the environmental community, I remind them they are only focusing on carbon, not the myriad of these other adverse impacts.

In my talks, I pass out coal, this combustible carbonaceous composite of rock we mine and burn and dump it’s wastes. The more we expose ourselves and our kids to its make up and how it’s use and conversion negatively impacts human health the environment and our global climate – we would be rushing to ease ourselves off of this resource as fast as humanly possible.

*Published May 08 in www.RenewableEnergyWorld.com
Last Updated ( June 09, 2008 )
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