Kicking the Coal Habit

Kicking the Coal Habit

America may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.

By Ted Williams/Photography by David T. Hanson
Published: May-June 2012

So mortality and morbidity are what we'd be exporting along with our coal. 

To learn what Americans can expect from the deal, I visited the Powder River Basin in February. From Billings I drove two hours east to Colstrip, Montana, an 88-year-old community of 2,300 built because of the adjacent Rosebud strip mine--now 50 square miles and which feeds a midtown power plant owned, in part, by PPL Generation. The "city," as it calls itself, would have been "Coalstrip" had not a spelling error permanently disappeared the "a." 

Colstrip residents overwhelmingly support the mine and plant. Less sanguine are other Montanans who depend less on coal but who pay for it in fish, wildlife, livestock, and quality of life. This seems especially unjust because Montana's hunters, anglers, and ranchers (more often than not the same people) are arguably the most enlightened in the nation. For example, this group and the wildlife managers they've hired have broken with counterparts in Wyoming and Idaho in accepting wolves.And represented by one of our most progressive state fish and wildlife agencies, they've shown the world that superimposing hatchery trout on wild populations is wasteful and counterproductive (see "Trout Are Wildlife, Too," September-October 2002). 

If you figure in real costs, coal is a net loss for Montanans, and even if you don't, much of the alleged profit migrates out of state. The mine is owned by Westmoreland Coal Co., based in Colorado. The plant is primarily owned by Washington's Puget Sound Energy. The three main companies proposing to expand strip mining and haul Powder River Basin Coal to the West Coast are Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, both based in Missouri, and Ambre Energy, based in Australia.


A month before I arrived in Colstrip I'd asked Jesse Noel of Western Energy (a Westmoreland subsidiary) for a tour of the Rosebud mine, explaining that while he wouldn't like my article, he'd like it better if I could get the company's perspective and not just that of the local populace. He said he'd "run it up the flagpole," then called back to say his company wasn't "interested" in showing me its operation because "the last few articles have not shown us in a favorable light." 

Fortunately (for me, at least) the Sierra Club's Mike Scott agreed to give me a tour of the mine. Scott, 32, doesn't fit the popular image of a Sierra Club official. The tall, athletic goat rancher and big-game hunter came to the club three years ago from the Northern Plains Resource Council, a group formed by local farmers and ranchers to stop mine development and resulting power plants from completely destroying their way of life. Scott knows roads that Western Energy can't legally block and that offer a true picture of open-pit strip mining as opposed to the sanitized view the company showed journalists when it was on friendlier terms with them. 

Confronting us was a flatland version of the mountaintop removal I'd seen in West Virginia. "Overburden," the industry's word for wildflowers, grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees, and topsoil, had been bulldozed away. Two-hundred-foot-high draglines bit into eight-story-deep coal seams blown to rubble with ammonium nitrate. Giant trucks with tires 12 feet in diameter hauled the rubble to be ground to sugar-fine dust blasted into perpetual fireballs under PPL's four boilers at the rate of a railroad-car load every five minutes.

Here and there we encountered pools of water. Companies can't let it sit in their mines, so they get state permits to divert it to rivers--in this case tributaries of the Yellowstone and Tongue. One of the many health threats of strip mining is "fugitive dust," and on this day it swirled around us in yellow clouds. Not only does it accumulate in lung tissue of humans and wildlife, it pollutes wetlands, streams, and lakes. The industry tells locals that it's safe, that they shouldn't worry about it--and to avoid it. 

A strip-mining company must post a bond to partly cover costs of reclamation should it go bust. And the bond isn't released until work passes muster with the Interior Department (on federal land) or the appropriate state agency if it's on state land. In Montana one-tenth of one percent of the strip-mined land has qualified for bond release; in Wyoming the figure is four percent. As we gazed out over the vast moonscape in front of us, Scott declared: "To me this is just as bad as mountaintop removal. But western coal mining is framed as somehow more benign. I think that's because no one lives here and it's easier to hide."

Despite the devastation we encountered, Montana is pristine compared with Wyoming. Wyoming provides 40 percent of the nation's coal, Montana about 4 percent.

Back in town we inspected the power plant. Three weeks earlier I'd asked David Hoffman, PPL's state director of external affairs, for an inside tour, making the same pitch to him I'd made to Western Energy--that my article would offend less if I could get a firsthand look at the company's operation and meet with the folks who ran it. He declined. 

Four stacks belched smoke to a cloudless sky. The two shorter ones topped boilers and 358-megawatt generators built in 1975 and 1976 and designed for 30-year lifespans. The boilers and 778-megawatt generators under each of the taller stacks were constructed in 1984 and 1986. An analysis of EPA data done by the Associated Press shows that the plant is the nation's eighth-most-prolific greenhouse-gas producer. 

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

What you can do - more ideas

On Facebook, like "Allies and Friends Fighting NW Coal Exports." On this page I link news (including, soon, this article) and resources for commenting on the various government decisions that are required for coal exports. Other ideas too. I will email to those who don't use Facebook.

Visit Sightline.org, a Seattle-based sustainabilty think tank that does credible research on coal exports, and other sustainabilty topics.

Visit PowerPastCoal.org, and sign petitions for the commenting opportunities.

Visit CoalSwarm.org, a global clearinghouse with info on impacts of coal worldwide. It's on Twitter,too.

Keep flexing your wonderful First Amendment Rights to the press, to petition your government, to assemble, to speak out, and practice your religion. All of these rights can help fight coal.

A Collectable Critique

Hey Drew:
First critique I’ve gotten from an admitted non-reader. Thanks. Interesting and collectable. Had you read the piece and responded to what I wrote instead of what you imagine I wrote, you’d have seen that nowhere did I “slam fossil fuels as dirty and untenable” and that I made the some point you do--that we “can’t go cold turkey on fossil fuels.”

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lollypops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to answering the questions, not just asking them.

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lolly pops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to solutions, not only questions.

"A Hydrocarbon -free Society" Huh?

Dear Anonymous: Who’s pushing for a “hydrocarbon free society?” As you state (and as I reported) we need coal. So why are you okay with sending so much of our coal to China?

C'mon...

This is a long article you're asking people to read, but I was prepared to wade through and see if there was any good learning to be had. (Plus, we Red Sox fans are captivated by anything with the name "Ted Williams" on it.) Fortunately or unfortunately, I never got past the fourth paragraph, where the author ludicrously blame an advertising slogan for gambling addictions and unethical behavior. By blithley dismissing the free will and sense of personal responsibility we all do or should possess, he undercuts his credibility and makes it pointless to read on. Even those of us with a more progressive mindset understand why conservatives paint these types of liberals as arrogant know-it-alls whose attempts to educate the rest of us reek with condescension. The fact is, slamming fossil fuels as dirty and untenable is a lazy and oversimplified argument. For one thing, we need ALL fuels to power our economy, particularly until technology allows us to use rewnewables as a baseload power. Secondly, NO energy production is completely clean. You think solar panels and wind turbines are made of pixie dust and unicorn tears? No, they're made of metals and chemicals and things that need to be mined and processed and manufactured and transported on fuel-burning trucks and trains. They also require space to generate energy and transmission lines to move that energy to places like the Audobon Society's offices. The world is making great progress on new energy technologies - not only wind and solar and biofuels but, yes, "cleaner" approaches to using coal - but we have to be patient and stop naively demanding the world go cold turkey on fossil fuels today. It's simply not possible. It's like demanding an iPad in 1985 - just wait a few years (or decades) and we'll get there....

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