Guest opinion: Cleaner electricity generators must replace coal

2014-03-11T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Cleaner electricity generators must replace coalBy HAROLD HOEM,
The Billings Gazette

In his Feb. 26 guest opinion, John Roeber praises Montana’s history of “balancing” our love of the land with our extraction of mineral riches. He writes, “That balance is our ‘third way,’ where extremist positions take a back seat to pragmatism.”

A look at Montana’s historic “balancing” shows 16 active federal Superfund sites, including a list of expensive and deadly disasters, such as Butte’s Berkeley pit and Libby’s asbestos mine — extraction accompanied by damage that we all pay for in dollars and health.

“Montana remains ... clean,” according to Roeber. What about coal’s legacy of polluting the surface and groundwater at Colstrip? 800 acres of toxic waste ponds are contaminating surface and groundwater. PPL hasn’t begun to clean up the waste impoundments that have been leaking since they were built decades ago.

Colstrip statistics

The Colstrip coal-fired power plant is one of the dirtiest in the nation, and burns 12 train cars of coal every hour. In 2011 Colstrip released thousands of pounds of toxins, including 110 pounds of mercury, 300 pounds of arsenic and 701 pounds of lead. These are linked to heart disease, lung disease, cancers and strokes. These toxins get into the food chain through our rivers, lakes, groundwater and land. They are inhaled when we breathe; children get more toxins per pound than adults.

Although Montana’s coal is lower in sulfur than most, it is also very low grade, sub-bituminous and lignite, one step above peat.

There is no such thing as “clean coal.” “Clean” would require filtering out all of the contaminants, including CO2, and disposing of them safely. Even if these technical issues could be overcome, it would increase the cost by 70 percent or more. Roeber acknowledged this.

Economic albatross

Colstrip’s Unit 4 has gone down for six months or more twice in the past four years. For PPL Colstrip is an economic albatross that no one wants to buy. The Montana Public Service Commission has repeatedly found that Colstrip is NorthWestern Energy’s first or second most expensive electricity source, at the expense of ratepayers. Wind is far cheaper and cleaner, and therefore better. Seldom do coal proponents address the costs of stripping our beautiful landscapes, fouling our air and fresh water, condemning private property, jeopardizing public health, leaking coal ash impoundments and loss of land productivity.

Roeber’s assertion that tens of thousands of jobs in Montana are at risk if EPA regulations are applied is misleading. It ignores the historic economic benefits of modernization and the ongoing growth of jobs in clean energy.

Coal for electric power generation is no longer viable in America. In 1988, 57 percent of our electric power came from burning coal; in 2013 only 37.4 percent. Replacing coal is natural gas, wind and, increasingly, solar.

Since U.S. power companies no longer want to burn coal, they want to ship it to China.

China connection

But China’s large cities are nearly uninhabitable due to burning coal. In response, China has become the world’s largest manufacturer and installer of renewable energy. Its most recent long-range energy plan includes stopping all imports of foreign coal within five years.

Incidentally, major air currents carry pollution from burning coal in Asia back to the Western United States in a matter of days. Mercury traceable to Chinese coal-fired power plants is now found in our lakes and rivers.

It doesn’t seem “extremist” to support EPA’s efforts to limit emissions of toxic metals and carbon pollution that threaten our health, air, water and land. EPA’s proposed standards will help our economy, environment and public health. We have already begun to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Most important is the legacy we will leave our children and grandchildren.

Don Hyndman and Jan and Harold Hoem are members of Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow in Missoula.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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