Monthly Archives: January 2014

The latest Coal news

If we don’t put people before profits, spills like West Virginia are our future | Jeff Biggers

Stronger regulation of the coal and chemical industries are the only way to ensure clean water and healthy communities

Photos of West Virginia residents trying to move on after the chemical spill

The dirty secret in President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy was quietly overlooked in his State of the Union address.

Three weeks after global media attention on the West Virginia coal-chemical disaster, the most important line of information still remains buried in an AP report:

…[A] review of federal environmental enforcement records shows that nearly three-quarters of the 1,727 coal mines listed haven’t been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws. Also, 13% of the fossil-fuel fired power plants are not complying with the Clean Water Act.

Translation: with federal and state blessing, the coal industry under President Obama is free to operate in a continual state of violation.

In the meantime, in the latest episode in West Virginia’s coal-chemical debacle, state officials announced on Wednesday that residents affected by the latest coal-chemical disaster are inhaling formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

“There is never peace in West Virginia,” labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones famously said nearly 100 years ago, “because there is never justice.”

Our president and nation must get beyond a crisis management approach to the coal industry, and come to grips with the double-headed source of the recent Elk River disaster – lax and unenforced regulations for coal mining and chemical operations, and the stranglehold of industry lobbies over public officials in charge of regulation. Otherwise, the Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” policy will simply extend a bitter legacy in coal country: there will never be clean water in West Virginia, because there is never justice.

Sure, hearings and investigations will be held, legislation introduced, an unenforced regulation or two added, a corporate official might be fined or even go to jail, but the truth is that toxic waters from various stages of coal mining will continue to flow with costly and devastating health effects – until public officials and their appointees are barred from accepting political contributions from the very industries they regulate.

This may sound hyperbolic, and certainly naïve – but I write after years of covering coal ash pond breakages, coal slurry disasters, and water-contamination issues from strip-mining discharges and the subsequent lack of regulatory action.

I also write from experience: my grandfather was a coal miner in southern Illinois, who barely survived a mining disaster in an age of regulatory corruption, struggled with black lung disease (a preventable coal dust inhalation malady that was first diagnosed in 1831) that still kills around four coal miners daily. My grandfather’s 150-year-old farm in the Shawnee National Forest area, was eventually stripmined and the local creek left sterile from mining discharges.

I have learned two things from the treatment of my grandfather and residents in today’s coal mining communities: in a nation that prioritizes coal industry profits over workplace and residential safety, people are as disposable as our natural resources in openly accepted national sacrifice zones. And secondly, all coal mining safety laws have been written in miners’ blood; the same is true for innocent citizens afflicted by clean water violations by coal and chemical companies.

A commentary I wrote in jest five years ago now seems deadly serious: Coal Ash Crisis Management – What’s It Going to Take, Dead Bodies?

Five years after the historic Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond disaster, when arsenic-laced ash flooded into eastern Tennessee waterways, EPA officials finally agreed this week to a settle a law suit and issue federal regulations by the end of the year for coal ash disposal. Over 1,000 toxic coal ash dumpsites simmer today, like accidents waiting to happen.

Four years after the New York Times exposed the harrowing reality of coal slurry injections contaminating underground watersheds and drinking wells in Prenter, West Virginia, where an extraordinary corridor of brain tumors, cancer and other problems have devastated a community, coal states like Illinois continue to green-light the same process of injecting deadly coal slurry into the watersheds of its residents.

Three years after citizens groups in Kentucky found over 20,000 incidences of unreported Clean Water Act violations from coal mining operations in eastern Kentucky – hailed as “Clean Watergate” due to the state of Kentucky’s lack of oversight – reckless strip mining operations continue to destroy the Cumberland waterways without end.

Two years after the US Geological survey found that mountaintop removal operations have adverse impacts on surrounding soil and water and over 20 other peer-reviewed studies conducted over a decade have enumerated the impact on the health of neighboring communities (which include birth defects and cancer) – mountaintop removal operations continue unabated in central Appalachia.

The history of regulating the US coal industry, especially in terms of clean water violations, is riddled by a stunning anatomy of denial in every generation.

Still, a decades-long resistance continues by impacted residents to protect their health, livelihoods and civil rights. Fed up with state and federal inaction, residents living under mountaintop removal operations have even launched their own bill – the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act – in Congress for a moratorium on the massive strip mining operations until proper health assessments are made.

Over 30 years ago, I lugged a pail of discolored water from a well in the back hollers of Bailey Mountain in West Virginia. I followed a trail of coal dust until I reached an elderly woman’s front porch, only a few hundred feet away from a strip mine. The smell of the water made me gag.

When I was first informed by West Virginia friends of the 9 January coal-cleaning chemical disaster, the black waters of Bailey Mountain and the inexorable clash between coal and clean water returned to me with a bitter taste.

West Virginia has been drinking contaminated water for decades. And it always will – unless the nation decides to end our denial of the ever mounting health and human costs of the coal industry, launch a coalfields regeneration transition plan, and finally bring justice to the coalfields.

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Death by sludge, coal and climate change for Great Barrier Reef? | Graham Readfearn

Authorities approve plans to dump three million cubic metres of dredge spoil into waters of already at-risk reef

There’s a phrase environmental scientists and campaigners like to use to talk about the slow and relentless degradation and destruction of habitats and natural wonders.

“Death by a thousand cuts”, they call it, as small chunks of habitat are lost and environmental laws are eased or repealed. A bit of bush here for a tourism development, a stand of mangroves there for a beachside resort. An entire nature reserve for a coal mine. Sometimes, the threats come like pincer movements with all angles covered. 

For the Great Barrier Reef, though, the world’s most famous and largest coral reef system, a final decision passed down today gives us another gash, through which could rush millions of tonnes of coal.

The reef is being threatened from all sides. Dredging for coal and gas ports. Increased shipping frequency. Run off from agricultural developments. Increased ocean acidity and rises in sea temperatures from fossil fuel burning. The threats have got the reef surrounded.

Now the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has decided to allow up to three million cubic metres of ocean bottom to be dredged and then dumped within the borders of the marine park and also the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.

The decision is another necessary block removed in order to liberate millions of tonnes of coal from Queensland’s Galilee Basin, where miners hope to then rail it to shore and load it onto containers at an expanded coal terminal at Abbot Point. The dredging is to make way for the ships as they weave their way through the Great Barrier Reef – a wondrous icon of the blue planet that doubles as the world’s most iconic coal shipping lane.

Most of the coal is destined for Asia and India, where it will be burned, releasing more greenhouse gases to warm the oceans and the atmosphere.

The dredging work at Abbot Point had already been approved by environment minister Greg Hunt back in December, despite concerted pressure from environmental campaigners.Even before that, the UN’s World Heritage Committee had sent a delegation to inspect the “property” after reports of a ramping-up of projects on the reef’s coastline to facilitate a boom in coal and gas exports.

Attention then turned to GBRMPA, who were given the task of making the final decision. Questions were raised about the potential for conflicts of interest within GBRMPA, after an ABC 7.30 Report pointed out that some of the board members had connections to the coal industry.

WWF also produced a scorecard earlier this week on the federal and state governments’ performance in protecting the reef and – not surprisingly – awarded a big fat fail. The group said:

Of the seven detailed recommendations from the World Heritage Committee the Australian and Queensland governments have failed to make “good progress or completed” any of them.

But today, GBRMPA gave the go ahead for the dredging project.

Greenpeace Reef Campaigner Louise Matthiesson said the decision was “one more body blow for the reef which further threatens marine life, its World Heritage status and Australia’s tourism and fishing industries”. Felicity Wishart, Great Barrier Reef campaign director with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said: “Most Australians will be shocked and angry at this decision by the Marine Park Authority and Minister Hunt to allow dumping of dredge spoil in Reef waters. Across the board, people expect them to defend the Reef, not approve its destruction.”

WWF Great Barrier Reef Campaigner Richard Leck said it was a “sad day for the reef and anyone who cares about its future. The World Heritage Committee will take a dim view of this decision which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations.”

GBRMPA itself said the approval was in line with its view that projects within existing port developments could be approved.

So attentions will now turn to the World Heritage Committee meeting in June in Qatar, where the committee will decide if the reef should sit on the “in danger” list next to sites such as the Belize section of the Mesoamerican Reef (the world’s second largest reef system). Also on the “danger list” is all five of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s World Heritage sites.

Leck told me: “We would argue strongly that this is a development outside port limits and it does contravene the World Heritage Committee’s recommendation around ports.”

As I explained last year, scientific research on the reef suggests that it is already in danger from human-caused climate change and ocean acidification.

Approving just two of the coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which would push coal through the dredged area at Abbot Point, would add emissions equivalent to six times the annual carbon footprint of the UK.

For the reef, it is not so much the risk of “death by a thousand cuts” but more “death by millions of cubic metres of sludge and billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide”. All approved.

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China sets new world record for solar installations | Jennifer Duggan

China installed more solar energy than any other country in the world in 2013

China installed a record 12GW of solar power in 2013, doubling its rate of solar installations, according to preliminary figures. This is more than has ever been installed by any country in a single year and means that China installed three times more solar energy in 2013 than the total UK solar capacity.

No country has ever added more than 8GW of solar power in one year before, according to an analysis by Li Shuo, a policy and energy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia. It is also more solar than China had installed in all the years prior to 2013 put together, according to Li.

The preliminary solar figures are estimated by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) which tracks energy figures globally. According to BNEF, this figure may even rise to 14GW due to a rush to install solar energy towards the end of 2013 due to a feed-in tariff for large photovoltaic projects coming to an end by January 1. A final figure is expected by March.

Other estimates have put the figure lower but these could also rise due to the end of year increase. The Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA) put the figure at 10.7GW and Chinese media has quoted industry sources putting the figure at at least 9.5GW.

Li explained that a lot of figures are based on the first ten or eleven months of the year with a projection for December. “There was definitely a rush in the last two months of the year in ramping up solar installation capacity,” he said because of the tariff ending by the end of the year “a lot of solar developers were in a hurry”.

“The 2013 figures show the astonishing scale of the Chinese market, now the sleeping dragon has awoken” said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at BNEF in a press release.

“PV is becoming ever cheaper and simpler to install, and China’s government has been as surprised as European governments by how quickly it can be deployed in response to incentives.”

In total China added just over 100GW of new power generation capacity in 2013. According to figures from BNEF, this is larger than the entire electricity capacity of the UK or South Korea. Coal still remains China’s main power source with 39.7GW coal-fired capacity installed last year. Hydro power saw the next largest increase last year with 30.5GW added while wind saw 14.1GW added.

Increasing its solar capacity is part of China’s plan to increase the amount of renewable energy it uses as it attempts to move away from coal as its primary power source. Li said that while coal still accounts for the major of China’s power, it is reducing as the country’s overall energy appetite reduces.

The high levels of air pollution which plague many of China’s cities is putting pressure on the government to reduce coal consumption and in some of the worst hit areas there is now a ban on new coal power plants.

An issue in China with renewable energy is in relation to connection to the grid. It is particularly a problem with wind energy and some wind farms in remote areas of the country remain unconnected. According to a spokesperson for Bloomberg, approximately 30% of the solar power installed in 2013 is still waiting connection. However they added that most solar developers are not worried and it is a matter of time before connection occurs and not a question of it it will occur.

Li said that the problem of connecting to the grid “is being resolved in quite a big way over the past two years. The government is offering a financial incentive for the grid to expand their network”.

Most of China’s solar installations are large-scale projects, the majority of which are based in the sunny western provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai. However, the Chinese government is planning a push for next year to increase the number of rooftop installations.

The Chinese government is targeting up to 14GW of additional solar capacity this year, 60% of which they are aiming to be from roop-top installations rather than large-scale projects. According to BNEF, this will bring “additional legal and financial complications for developers” and they predict that this target will not be met but that there will be higher growth in 2015.

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