Earth Month, Day 5: Clean Coal?

michelle nijhuisFor today's installment of our Earth Month series we bring you just one story, but it's a doozy: Michelle Nijhuis tackles coal for National Geographic.  

 

Juliette, Georgia Steam and smoke rise from the cooling towers and chimneys of the Robert W. Scherer power plant, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. It burns 12 million tons of coal a year. (Photo by Robb Kendrick)

Can Coal Ever Be Clean?

Coal provides 40 percent of the world’s electricity. It produces 39 percent of global CO₂ emissions. It kills thousands a year in mines, many more with polluted air.

Environmentalists say that clean coal is a myth. Of course it is: Just look at West Virginia, where whole Appalachian peaks have been knocked into valleys to get at the coal underneath and streams run orange with acidic water. Or look at downtown Beijing, where the air these days is often thicker than in an airport smoking lounge. Air pollution in China, much of it from burning coal, is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year. That’s on top of the thousands who die in mining accidents, in China and elsewhere.

These problems aren’t new. In the late 17th century, when coal from Wales and Northumberland was lighting the first fires of the industrial revolution in Britain, the English writer John Evelyn was already complaining about the “stink and darknesse” of the smoke that wreathed London. Three centuries later, in December 1952, a thick layer of coal-laden smog descended on London and lingered for a long weekend, provoking an epidemic of respiratory ailments that killed as many as 12,000 people in the ensuing months. American cities endured their own traumas. On an October weekend in 1948, in the small Pennsylvania town of Donora, spectators at a high school football game realized they could see neither players nor ball: Smog from a nearby coal-fired zinc smelter was obscuring the field. In the days that followed, 20 people died, and 6,000 people—nearly half the town—were sickened...Read more. 

Also, don't miss the story's accompanying slideshow by photographer Robb Kendrick. (Click photo below to see the full show.)

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