Kicking the Coal Habit
Coal isn’t far behind firearm homicides or drunk driving in killing people, annually causing 24,000 heart attacks, 217,600 asthma attacks, and dispatching 13,200 Americans, according to the Clean Air Task Force. And the toll is undoubtedly higher in China, where citizens are demonstrating against coal power by the tens of thousands.
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.