Old King Coal

Someone once showed me an old Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chamber of Commerce pamphlet from around 1900 that had as its cover image a charcoal rendition of a portion of the city’s skyline at the time. It was a bird’s eye view of what was pretty much all industrial smokestacks, churning out soot.

Back then, of course, when no one really knew what our carbon and particulate emissions would ultimately bring in the way of dirty air, poor health and a warming globe, such images were symbols of prosperity, employed in this instance to portray a robust local economy and, one hoped, to attract more such industry to the area.

We now know, of course, that burning coal is the dirtiest way to generate electricity. From its mining, to its transportation, use and waste disposal, coal poses serious problems to our environment and, by extension, our health. It is chock-full of dangerous substances—like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—that contaminate our air, land and water, and our hearts and lungs as well.

Coal-fired power plants also spew mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin known to cause a whole host of human health and developmental problems, and a prime suspect in still others. And if that weren’t enough, coal-fired power plants are the primary source of the principal global warming pollutant, carbon dioxide.

Still, it’s only in recent years that the movement against coal—and particularly against the building of any new coal plants—has really coalesced. For many, the horrors of mountaintop removal mining was something happening remotely, in a poor area of the country—Appalachia—that received little national attention. But thanks to vocal, and resilient, rural coal activists, that story has changed. They have brought the fight for their local land—land which has been stripped, flooded and the water contaminated, thanks to mining operations—to the national stage. College environmentalists have picked up on the call to end coal, as have celebrities like this issue’s cover model Daryl Hannah.

Hannah, along with NASA climate scientist James Hansen and Michael Brune, the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, were among more than 30 people arrested on June 23 at a protest in Coal River Mountain, West Virginia, where they were demonstrating against mountaintop removal by coal giant Massey Energy. And now anyone who wants to trace his or her own connection to mountaintop removal mining, and see aerial photos of the hacked and barren mountains, can visit www.ilovemountains.org and type in his or her zip code. Coal affects us all.

What’s not clear is if this growing momentum against coal operations will spur a strong enough reaction from the Obama administration. So far, companies have been allowed to dump mine waste into valleys and rivers, and the administration’s case-by-case reviews of mining permits have allowed most new operations to continue. Still, with all the attention—and money—being directed to renewable energy and green jobs, the time looks right for at least a beginning to the end of coal.