Underground coal miners work in the darkness, invisible to most of us, and when they die -- also in the darkness, from methane explosions or rock falls or any of the hundreds of other hazards they face every day -- their deaths usually merit just a few paragraphs in the local newspaper.
The attempted rescue of trapped coal miners, on the other hand, is often headline news. Networks love the real-time drama of the rescue efforts -- it's reality TV from the heartland, complete with anguished family members, heroic workers and dodgy mine owners. Sometimes, these stories have happy endings. In 2002, nine miners who were trapped in a coal mine in Quecreek, Pa., for 77 hours emerged as celebrities, feted by Oprah and photographed for Vanity Fair magazine.
But not every mine rescue turns out so well, as the Crandall Canyon mine disaster near Huntington, Utah, has reminded us over the past three weeks. When three rescuers were killed trying to dig out the six miner
who've been trapped since Aug. 6, the story turned, as Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. put it, "from a tragedy into a catastrophe."
In the coming months, tough questions will be asked about exactly what happened in the Crandall Canyon mine: Did federal mine safety officials do everything they could to protect the miners? Did Robert Murray, the co-owner of the mine, value profits over human life? And why, at the beginning of the 21st century, when we can download real-time images from Mars onto our laptop computers, has no one figured out a way to track or communicate with coal miners underground?
"This is a defining moment for the history of mining," Huntsman said.
"We all expect to come out of this better and smarter and safer."
But if history is any guide, straightforward answers to what happened in Utah will be as rare as oxygen in the collapsed mine. We can expect a hue and cry about mine safety on Capitol Hill, a lot of blame-shifting and finger-pointing and, most likely, some modest mine safety improvements. But you can bet that you won't hear much about the real issue, which is the high cost of the United States' dependence on coal and whether it's worth the price we pay.
Many Americans think that coal went out with top hats and corsets. In fact, we burn more than a billion tons of coal each year in the United States -- about 20 pounds a day for every man, woman and child. We don't burn it in coal stoves, of course, but in big power plants that generate about half the electric power in the country.
Politically, the war in Iraq has been a boon for coal, allowing coal-friendly politicians to tout America's 250-year supply as a substitute for our addiction to Middle Eastern oil -- even though, in the real world, there is no overlap between coal (used to generate electricity) and oil (used for transportation fuels, among other things). This is not to say that the coal industry would not dearly love to get into America's gas tank. In recent months, it has pushed hard for subsidies and tax breaks that would accelerate the construction of coal-to-liquid plants, a technology developed by the Nazis during the 1930s that can transform coal into liquid fuels such as diesel (for technical reasons, it's very difficult to make gasoline from coal).
Coal boosters argue that today's industry is nothing like the industry of yore, and that many of the problems with the fuel -- like the fact that air pollution from power plants kills people -- have been solved by new technology. Coal is cheap, plentiful and clean, they say. What's not to like?
Mine disasters such as the one in Utah, however, don't exactly fit this script. It's tough to argue that you've left the 19th century behind when you have Murray -- one of the most prominent coal barons in the United States, well known for his political connections and influence -- insisting that the collapse was caused by an earthquake, directly contradicting seismologists who say that their instruments clearly show that the seismic activity was the result of the collapse in the mine. It may not surprise you that Murray also believes global warming is a hoax.
Claims about a 250-year supply of coal won't stand up to scrutiny for long, either. Yes, the United States has more coal than any other nation. But we've been mining coal in this country for 150 years -- all the simple, high-quality, easy-to-get stuff is gone. What's left is buried beneath towns and national parks, or places that are difficult, expensive and dangerous to mine. The blunt truth is, if we're going to become more dependent on coal, more miners will die. How many mining tragedies will we accept in the name of "cheap" electricity?
Digging up hard-to-get coal will also devastate Appalachia, where huge mountaintop-removal mines have already buried 700 miles of streams and 400,000 acres of forests. (Mountaintop-removal is a particularly destructive form of mining in which entire mountains are blasted apart to expose the coal seams inside; the rubble is typically dumped in nearby valleys.) Instead of strengthening oversight of this type of mining, the Bush administration proposed last week to loosen regulations and allow it to expand. One recent study estimated that if this practice continues, within 40 years the region disemboweled by mining will be approximately the size of Rhode Island.
As for "clean coal," it's a nice advertising slogan, but it's not a statement of fact. According to Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a nonprofit group funded by coal companies and coal-burning electric utilities, emissions of conventional pollutants from coal plants have fallen by one-third between 1970 and 2000, even as the use of coal to generate electricity has tripled. What they don't tell you is that a) the industry fought the laws that mandated many of those reductions; and b) the amount of pollution spewed out by a coal plant is still enormous.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy group, annual emissions from a typical coal plant include 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the major cause of acid rain; 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, a major contributor to smog; 500 tons of small particles, which cause lung damage and other respiratory problems; 225 pounds of arsenic; 114 pounds of lead; and many other toxic heavy metals, including 170pounds of mercury, which can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments.
But the big issue is global warming. Burning coal accounts for more than one-third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In a single year, a big coal plant emits as much carbon dioxide as 1million SUVs. Coal plants that are built today emit just as much CO2 as those that were built 50 years ago (there have been some marginal gains
in efficiency, but not many). In the future, carbon dioxide might be captured from coal plants and pumped underground into abandoned oil wells or deep saline aquifers, but at the moment, these solutions are unproven and expensive.
The coal industry is soaking up billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to develop technology and study the problem. But according to climate scientists such as NASA's James Hansen, if we hope to have a chance of avoiding dangerous changes to Earth's climate, we don't have time to wait. That's why Hansen, along with former vice president Al
Gore and others, has called for a moratorium on new coal plants that do not capture and store carbon dioxide pollution. And that's why Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into clean-energy technology -- because they know that confronting the problem of global warming is not just the biggest challenge that civilization has ever faced, but also the mother of all economic opportunities.
It may seem like a long way from the melting Arctic to the mine disaster in Utah, but it's not. The lesson from Crandall Canyon is not just that we need stronger mine safety laws and better federal oversight of dangerous mines, but that as Americans, we need to be more conscious of the costs and consequences of what goes on behind the light switch.
Otherwise, instead of coming out of this disaster smarter, stronger and safer, we're likely to find ourselves repeating this story again and again.
Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and the author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future."
Wild Life Considerations: N.E. loons facing new threat
By Robert Braile, Boston Globe Correspondent, 9/5/2000
The loons that grace northern New England's lakes and rivers are cherished birds, the inspiration for everything from festivals in their honor, to compact discs of their distinctive wail, to wood carvings of their elegant black and white form. But toxic methylmercury is taking a toll on the loons, undercutting their ability to reproduce and survive, according to the findings of a team of private, government, industry, and academic researchers.
Many loons are producing only half their normal number of offspring, they found, in part because their eggs have become more fragile. The contaminant in their blood, a form of mercury, exists naturally in the environment, but it is turning up in high levels across New England, mostly because of air pollution, especially from incinerators and coal-burning plants.
''There's a lot of evidence to suggest that New England's loons are in trouble,'' said David Evers, director of the BioDiversity Research Institute, a Maine nonprofit group on the team. After seven years of research, the team has shown for the first time that loons are being damaged by methylmercury.
The most threatened loons are in Maine, where most of the pollution sweeping into New England from the South and West ends up. There, 27 percent of the loons contain so much methylmercury that it is disrupting the formation of their eggs, as well as the birds' behavior, development, immunity, and long-term survival. The picture is not much better in New Hampshire, where loons soared to fame in ''On Golden Pond,'' the 1981 movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda that was filmed on Squam Lake. In that state, 15 percent of the loons are threatened by mercury. The figure is the same in Vermont and 10 percent in New York.
New England's loons have long been known to have the highest methylmercury levels in the country, at least four times those of the same birds in relatively pristine Alaska, which are considered baseline. Methylmercury is so pervasive and severe that every state in the region has advised anglers in recent years to avoid eating much freshwater fish, the loons' top food source, because the fish are laced with the contaminant.
But loons are not the only creatures that consume fish, and the researchers say it is now time to take a closer look at how methylmercury may be harming wildlife such as bald eagles, great blue herons, otters, and minks. All may be facing the same threat as loons, an ''indicator species'' whose health reflects the overall ecological health of the landscape on which it lives.
''Any of the wildlife that depends on fish for its diet will be similarly affected,'' said Drew Major, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is also on the loon research team, along with the US Environmental Protection Agency, state fish and game and environmental agencies, private conservation groups, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Canadian Wildlife Service, and SPL Energy Maine Hydro.
The team, known as the Northeast Loon Study Work Group, also found that the loons at risk are behaving in ways that harm their young: spending less time nest-sitting, foraging, resting, and preening than healthy birds, while rustling about more for no productive reasons, wasting needed energy. As their blood-mercury levels rise, the birds are producing lighter eggs that are less likely to survive, and are growing asymmetrical flight feathers, making it harder to fly, and thus compete and survive.
They are also producing more corticosterone, a hormone associated with stress. ''When you see a report like this, you realize that more has to be done faster,'' said Kate Hartnett, senior biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee, an arm of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire and another team member. ''This should serve as a wake up call to get going.''
Efforts are underway in the region to slash mercury emissions from incinerators, power plants, manufacturing plants, and other sources. The states are at various stages of meeting a 1998 pledge by the New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers to halve emissions by 2003. Some on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, are pushing for stronger federal controls following the release last year of a long overdue EPA report to Congress.
''Loons have been like coal mine canaries as we have studied the environmental effects of mercury,'' Leahy said, commenting yesterday on the report. ''They are among the first animals to show its poisonous effects on organisms and ecosystems as it accumulates on its way up the food chain. Mercury is the last major toxic without a control strategy because the corporate polluters have prevented action by arguing that we need more evidence.''