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Greenpeace Report Tags True Price of Coal

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For many years, Appalachian coalfield citizens have insisted that coal energy is not cheap. A new Greenpeace report may give us the numbers to prove it.


When energy and climate problems burst into fiery dialogue several years ago, grassroots coalfield groups worried that harm to people and nature by mountaintop removal coal mining would be buried in the rumble of greenhouse gas and global warming debates. Networking with climate and green energy activists, making wide use of the Internet, we organized to increase public awareness that the aggregate process of mining coal, burning it and disposing of waste-referred to in the Greenpeace report as coal's chain of custody-is dirty and expensive.


These collaborative efforts built a diverse, extended community that continues to have a profound impact on the energy conversation. How do we know this?  Type "mountaintop removal" into your favorite search engine. Better yet, consider all of the new coalitions and multimillion-dollar marketing strategies funded by the coal industry to bury the truth in so-called clean, inexpensive coal.


If we look only at factors reflected by the market price of coal-currently $133-138 per short ton in Appalachia-it's clear why the coal industry hopes the public will be fooled by their cheap arguments. But who pays for broken mountains, poisoned water, respiratory disease and ruined communities not accounted for on our electric bills? The coal companies?


I don't think so! This is why the Greenpeace report is such an important document for those of us in the coalfields: it outlines external costs not reflected in the market price of coal-damage that coal companies never pay for-and gives it a price tag.


The True Cost of Coal examines three main links in coal's chain of custody, explaining how mining coal, burning coal, and coal's legacy of toxic waste burial, fractured landscapes and fragmented communities causes irreparable damage to people and the planet. Costs of human suffering are not easily assessed except through stories of people who are affected. Greenpeace gives them plenty of space in the report, organized to illustrate impacts to people at each link in the chain, from "gray mountains, black water and yellow smoke" in Xiaoyi, China to a community swimming hole, fed by acid mine drainage and heated by poisonous underground coal fires, near Maguqa, South Africa.


The toxic trashing of Appalachia by mountaintop removal is also featured in first hand accounts of three coalfield residents in eastern Kentucky. Validating concerns of citizens on the front lines of this pernicious practice, the report describes water supplies contaminated by arsenic and mercury, hollows denuded and filled with mine waste, and a once-thriving streams buried alive or killed by lethal doses of acid mine drainage.


To analyze data for their report, Greenpeace engaged CE Delft, a respected thirty-year old independent, non-profit think tank in the Netherlands. Greenpeace cautions that calculations estimate a lower limit of the true cost of coal and do not represent a comprehensive evaluation of all external impacts. Accurate and reliable data at every link in the chain, they say, either does not exist on a global scale or is virtually impossible to quantify.


With these limitations in mind, check out the numbers. Damage from coal combustion, coal extraction and mining accidents in 2007 roughly totaled 360-billion Euros (457-billion USD). Coal combustion in power plants accounted for about 99% of total external costs. Though coal mining's share of the burden was estimated at only 674-million Euros (855.5-million USD), costs of many known impacts, such as acid mine drainage, stream loss or displacement of entire communities, remain unavailable or essentially inestimable.


Imagine this kind of destruction-which will get even worse if we build new coal plants and open more mines to feed them-continuing for the next ten years, or twenty. How much will the "cheap coal" scam really cost us in land and lives? Gee, it kind of makes the $700-billion dollar Wall Street bailout look like pennies in my old piggy bank.


Online Resources:


Check out the Greenpeace report here.

Read more about the vision and work at CE Delft here.

Learn more about The Alliance for Appalachia here.

Check current coal production and market prices here.


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Cathie Bird, MA, PsyP, is a psychoanalyst, writer and citizen scientist in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. She currently chairs the Strip-mine Issues Committee of SOCM - Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment -- and is also a (more...)
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