Old King Coal

By James e. McWilliams

Few things make coal companies happier than high gas prices and the occasional blackout. Complete power losses, in fact, really fire them up. A case in point would be the blackouts that rolled across Texas last April 17. Three days later, TXU Corp., one of the state’s major power providers, announced a $10 billion plan to add and expand coal-fueled plants to power the homes of 6.5 million Texans. No doubt many of these Texans are well aware that coal is dirty and dangerous. As Tom “Smitty” Smith, head of the Texas office of Public Citizen, told the Austin American-Statesman, “If these plants are permitted, their carbon emissions will cook our climate, their mercury emissions will cause brain damage to unborn children, and the fine particles will choke the neighbors.” But blackouts are blackouts, so many consumers are content to look the other way when TXU politely rejects coal “gasification”—a way to recycle carbon dioxide emissions—as something that causes the company “economic tension,” which is too say, it cuts into its profits.

Big Coal book jacket

As Jeff Goodell ably demonstrates in his new book, Big Coal, the politics of coal in the United States is something that has a direct impact on every American. It also epitomizes what Al Gore calls an “inconvenient truth.” Big Coal is an important book, but there are a few problems that should be mentioned up front:

One. Big Coal began as a 2001 article for the New York Times Magazine. It would have been better off staying that way. Perhaps it could have been serialized over several issues. That way, more readers would have absorbed Goodell’s urgent message. The book reads the same back to front as front to back, and thus could easily have been stretched out over several Sundays, enabling millions to wash the rather sad message down with a decent cup of coffee.

Two. The promotional package supporting the book repeatedly draws a link between burning coal and using your computer and other entertainment gadgetry. “Few of us realize,” reads the back-cover blurb, “that coal already supplies more than half the energy needed to power our iPods, laptops, lights—anything we use that consumes electricity.” Then the concluding kicker: “Big Coal shows us that our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by black rocks.” Hmm. How relevant to the millions of laptop users out there who care about the environment and think their obsessive tap-tapping matters none. The only problem is that Goodell never develops this connection in his book—despite the fact that the latter quote is his. (I mention this just to point out yet again what desperate lengths publishers go to these days to sell books, especially downer-enviro-gloom-and-doom books, of which this is one.)

Three. Goodell, whose real journalistic home base is Rolling Stone, is clearly a student of the new journalism. He eagerly dons his hardhat and takes us into the belly of the beast, narrating his own experience doing the reporting while conveying the contents of that reporting. When it works, it’s fairly brilliant. Too often, Goodell’s attempt to show us what it was like on the ground feels one-dimensional. It’s as if he’s writing for movie executives rather than an audience capable of grasping nuance. One example stands out. In a meeting with a Georgia legislator who was trying to chaperone the illicit love affair between coal companies and regulators, the author becomes inexplicably obsessed with the fact that the guy was eating chicken for lunch. “As he talked,” writes Goodell, “he munched on a piece of fried chicken.” A quote from the legislator is followed with Goodell’s remark that he was “munching on his chicken.” Another quote ends with the guy “sucking on a chicken bone.” And soon, you’re also wondering: Why does Goodell keep bringing up this piece of chicken? New journalism is great, so long as the method does not undermine the message.

All that said, Big Coal addresses a critical environmental issue with an arsenal of apposite facts and a balanced tone of moderate muckraking to “give a sense of the broad impact that coal has on our lives.” Coal is cheap, abundant (although less and less accessible), and job-producing. But it’s also extremely dirty (that is, carbon-producing) and terribly inefficient (only 3 percent of the coal that’s mined is actually turned into electricity). As Goodell reports, if for no other reason than America’s “geological good fortune,” coal has become our “default fuel of choice,” especially as “energy dependence” becomes more and more a hot-button political issue. For all its problems, coal consumption is booming. Not only does coal produce half the energy we consume, but in 2005 120 new plants “were either planned or under construction in the United States” (see “The Coal War,” Nov. 4, 2005). In addition, “long-shuttered mines were reopening, and old coal miners were dusting off their boots.” The increased consumption of such a polluting form of energy is what ultimately inspires Goodell’s efforts. With measured indignation he highlights and explains the serious environmental consequences of using coal, paying special attention to the rank corruption practiced by coal executives and bought-and-paid-for politicians who aim to whitewash the human costs of those consequences.

Living near a coal mine is a nightmare. Goodell, who did extensive research in West Virginia, pays attention to what happens when coal companies level mountaintops to access increasingly stubborn coal seams. The Bush administration, working through the Department of the Interior, helped reclassify mountaintop removal debris as “fill” rather than “waste.” As a result, the stuff is allowed to sit in piles without treatment or proper disposal. The problem with this seemingly innocuous reclassification is that the “fill” leaches acid and heavy metals into the water supply. Compounding the problem is the issue of coal slurry impoundments. West Virginia has 135. Executives seem to have forgotten that back in 1972, a slurry impoundment broke, flooded a hollow, and killed 125 people. They also seemed to have forgotten that one of the state’s biggest slurry dams sits directly above an elementary school. Or, given their indifference to regulating these slurries, it’s more likely that the companies—”who see the world as a spreadsheet to conquer”—just don’t care. Vast lakes of black water thus also go unregulated, leaking lead, arsenic, beryllium, and selenium into local drinking water.

One result of this mess is the emergence of new mines, operations that take advantage of lack of oversight to engage in environmentally irresponsible behavior to enrich shareholders. At the rate at which mines are opening in West Virginia, a Rhode Island-sized chunk of the state will, in 10 years, be directly affected by mountaintop-removal mining. Another result, of course, is a slew of health issues that are gruesomely confirmed by local doctors, who find direct correlations among slurry impoundments, “fills,” and health problems like thyroid cancer, kidney stones, and birth defects. The choice here seems clear to anyone with even the stickiest moral compass. But guess who’s stuffing the pols’ pockets with re-election cash? And guess who’s providing the entire mining town with free Christmas turkeys?

Don’t feel safe, though, because you don’t live in Appalachia, or because your state rep has his hands in some other executive’s pants for some other perverted cause. The chattering culinarians, you may have heard, are talking mercury, and mercury knows no bounds. Mercury-laden fish have been a big topic lately in the Times, Consumer Reports, and other national media outlets. Goodell, in one of the book’s best sections, links the issue of mercury in fish to coal. Turns out that American coal plants churn out 48 tons of mercury every year. Thirty percent falls to ground like a thin layer of black snow. That is, 32,000 pounds of mercury goes from American coal plants directly into the soil and water, where it settles and accumulates. In water mercury is eaten by tiny fish. The tiny fish get eaten by tuna. The tuna gets eaten by us. We’re not talking rocket science here.

Again, this is not the first time the world has confronted the specter of mercury-laden fish. Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s also had a tragic fish story to tell. In the late 1930s the Chisso Corp., a company that manufactured acetaldehyde (used to make plastic), routinely dumped mercury (a catalyst in making said acetaldehyde) into the bay upon which the town sat. By the 1950s, not only were inordinate numbers of people slurring words and falling into shaking fits, but even the town’s cats went nuts. By the 1960s, babies were routinely born without arms or legs. All in all, more than 1,500 people died of mercury poisoning. Countless others were injured. The pols and execs, though, are keeping this one quiet, too.

Story after story along these rather grim, rather depressing, lines should convince even the staunchest supporter of coal that there are serious problems to confront, and that the industry should at the very least be closely regulated. The level of cynicism and corruption required to ignore these problems and advocate the unregulated burning of this energy, which clogs the environment and food supply with heavy metals, and adds dramatically to the world’s carbon output (thus spiking the Greenhouse effect), is difficult to comprehend. It’s so astounding in its shamelessness, so bold in its disregard for human safety and quality of life, that even a seasoned politician such as Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA, says she was snowed by it.

In another one of the book’s narrative high points (one that Goodell acknowledges comes from Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill), Goodell retells the story of how Whitman came into office hoping to show the world that the United States took global warming seriously. With a 2001 promise from Bush (one made during his campaign and printed in his “Transition 2001” manual) to place a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, Whitman went off to Trieste for a G-8 summit on global warming and promoted this surprisingly enlightened U.S. position. She was later quoted as saying that “a number of high level executives from coal, utility, and railroad companies,” as well as several Republican senators, pounced on the administration to avoid what former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was publicly calling Whitman’s “eco-extremism.” When she returned from Trieste, Whitman discovered that Bush had reneged on everything he’d said to her about global warming. He told her, point blank, there was no point in talking: “I’ve already made my decision.” Goodell sums up Whitman’s reaction:

Whitman knew, in that instant, not only that the administration would do nothing about global warming, but also that Bush was a different kind of man than she had taken him to be. He had allowed her to run around the world, putting her own credibility on the line and using her hard-won political respectability to elaborate on a commitment he had made to the American public. When his pals in the coal and oil business had kicked up a fuss, he had broken that commitment without even discussing it with her.

Nevertheless, Whitman stayed on the job for two more years. What’s even more depressing—as Goodell shows time after time—is how grown men and women will casually abuse power to feather their bloated and gilded nests with the lives of the powerless.

James E. McWilliams covers gloom and doom books for the Observer. Fifteen new coal-fired plants are now proposed for Texas. Environmentalists estimate that as currently proposed, these plants will add millions of tons of smog- and ozone-forming compounds to the air, as well as thousands of pounds of mercury to our lakes and streams.


To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfry smell of coal. You can’t take a whiff without thinking of labor battles and underground mine explosions, of chugging smokestacks and black lung.

But coal is everywhere in twenty-first century China. It’s piled up on sidewalks, pressed into bricks and stacked near the back doors of homes, stockpiled into small mountains in the middle of open fields, and carted around behind bicycles and old wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal smoke rise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. There is soot on every windowsill and around the collar of every white shirt. Coal is what’s fueling China’s economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isn’t. And as it did in America one hundred years ago, the power of coal will lift China into a better world. It will make the country richer, more civilized, and more remote from the hard facts of life, just like us.

The cost of the rough journey China is undertaking is obvious. More than six thousand workers a year are killed in China’s coal mines. The World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, a region made up predominantly of China and South Korea, 355,000 people a year die from the effects of urban outdoor pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in China’s industrial north, it was so befouled by coal smoke that I could hardly see across the street. All over China, limestone buildings are dissolving in the acidic air. In Beijing, the ancient outdoor statuary at a 700-year-old Taoist temple I visited was encased in Plexiglas to protect it. And it’s not just the Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from China’s power plants blows across the Pacific and is inhaled by sunbathers on Malibu beach. Toxic mercury from Chinese coal finds its way into polar bears in the Arctic. Most seriously, the carbon dioxide released by China’s mad burning of coal is helping to destabilize the climate of the entire planet.

All this would be much easier to condemn if the West had not done exactly the same thing during its headlong rush to become rich and prosperous. In fact, we’re still doing it. Although America is a vastly richer country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption of coal is three times higher than China’s. You can argue that we manage it better – our mines are safer, our power plants are cleaner – but mostly we just hide it better. We hide it so well, in fact, that many Americans think that coal went out with corsets and top hats. Most of us have no idea how central coal is to our everyday lives or what our relationship with this black rock really costs us.

In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We don’t use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wir
whenever we fli
on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America. About half the electricity we consume comes from coal – we burn more than a billion tons of it a year, usually in big, aging power plants that churn out amazing quantities of power, profit, and pollution. In fact, electric power generation is one of the largest and most capital-intensive industries in the country, with revenues of more than $260 billion in 2004. And the rise of the Internet – a global network of electrons – has only increased the industry’s power and influence. We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks. —From Big Coal by Jeff Goodell

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST