When actress Daryl Hannah was arrested in southern West Virginia, she joined thousands of other activists and residents who are fed up with the coal industry’s toxic legacy. Visiting the sites of mountaintop removal mining – the destructive process of blowing up mountains to access coal stores – Hannah says she was left feeling sick.
“I almost can’t explain how hard it is to assimilate and process the moonscape that is left behind,” the star of 1984’s Splash and 2003 and 2004’s Kill Bill Vol. I & II told E. “I went to one site just yards from some of the locals’ homes…and in their front yard there’s this massive contaminated explosion site with a slurry lake filled with billions of gallons of poisonous toxic sludge.”
Hannah has an extensive interview related to coal and her own involvement in coal activism in E’s September/October 2009 issue (now posted at www.emagazine.com – an issue which looks at the growing momentum against coal power and the difficulties of ever realizing “clean coal.”
Coal’s Dark Side
There’s no denying that coal – which is responsible for nearly half the nation’s electricity – is dirty. Today, coal contributes about a third of U.S. greenhouse gases and about a quarter of the planet’s total global warming emissions. And the world is on course to double its coal emissions by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. What’s more, mining coal creates water pollution and, while burning, it spews more than a dozen pollutants into the air – including arsenic, sulfur dioxide, lead and other heavy metals.
But it may be the more visibly disturbing mountaintop removal mining that is galvanizing activists from within the environmental community – like author Bill McKibben and NASA climate scientist James Hansen – and from among the many residents who have witnessed irreparable damage to their homes and livelihoods. But while the momentum against coal is building, the political will is not keeping pace.
Finding the Political Will
Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and a 2009 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, says time is being lost. Gunnoe says the uncertainty surrounding the Obama administration’s position on coal has prompted mining companies to rush to obtain valley fill permits, in case the Environmental Protection Agency hardens its stance. So far, the administration has allowed permits for valley fills – dumping mine waste into nearby valleys and streams – on a case-by-case basis.
The Uncertainty of Clean Coal
So what about “clean coal”? Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), as it’s officially known, sounds great in theory. It would siphon off the carbon when the electricity is generated, compress it into liquid form and then store it underground, but the technology is billions of dollars and decades away from mass development. Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba told The New York Times that to move just 10 percent of the compressed carbon dioxide that coal-fired plants emit in one year would be like moving more than the entire worldwide annual flow of oil.