Activists from the coalfield were in the nation’s capital last week, seeing lawmakers in visits that turned confrontational. People were arrested after refusing to leave offices of Congresspeople from Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. In a bizarre episode, West Virginia activist Maria Gunnoe came to testify to a Congressional committee about mountaintop removal. She brought with her a photograph of a child in a bathtub of orange water, said to be polluted as the result of nearby mining. But a committee member, Colorado Congressman Douglas Lamborn, refused to allow the photo to be shown to his committee—then called the Capitol police and had Gunnoe questioned for child pornography. Lamborn said thew photo was “inappropriate,” though the Washington Post reports he has never actually seen the picture.
Also in Washington were families of men killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster. The Beckley Register-Herald reports that members of three victims’ families told Representatives and Senators to hurry up and pass mine safety legislation. Bills to do that have been before Congress for over two years with no progress. Politicians told the survivors they sympathized, and pointed fingers at each other. Republican Representative John Kline said Republicans want the Obama administration to get tougher with safety violators. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller said he’s been pushing the safety bill for two years and called the lack of progress “absolutely unacceptable.” Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died at Upper Big Branch, said “It all cones down to greed, putting production ahead of human life. That shouldn’t be tolerated in this country.”
Covering the debate over the Big Sandy power plant in May, The New York Times observed that, while the coal and electricity industries were once firm allies, that isn’t true any more. A report last week from the Reuters news service points in the same direction. Reuters reports on a survey of power company executives by the consulting firm Black & Veatch. The power executives foresee a rapid decline in the role of coal in making electricity, with gas taking up the slack. 58 percent of the executives said coal has a future in the electricity industry—but that figure is down from 81 percent only a year ago. 17 percent of the power-company executives said that in coming years coal will sell mostly to foreign customers.
The earth is getting warmer—call it climate change if you will—and it’s having its effects even on the process of making electricity. USA Today reports several cases from the US and Europe where coal and nuclear plants have had to shut down temporarily because river water had gotten too warm to cool the units. The Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, for example, had to shut down more than once last summer because water from the Tennessee River had gotten too warm to cool the reactor core. A study by an engineering professor at the University of Washington predicts that this sort of thing will be more common in the future and will lead to major (though hopefully temporary) power shortages.
Another climate-related issue is reduced river flows. Reuters news service reports 90 percent of US electricity comes from plants that use water, be they coal, gas, or nuclear. Plant operators will not always have the water they need. Recent hot dry summers have led to numerous instances of power cutbacks and that will likely increase—especially in the inland South. What can we do? One strategy is to build power plants near the ocean. Another is to use more—you guessed it—gas. Gas plants use less water than either coal or nuclear.
CBS News reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has sued a coal group owned by a massive Indian conglomerate. The suit says that the companies carried out illegal mining in eastern Kentucky, doing mountaintop removal jobs with no permits. The mine companies in question are part of Trinity Coal Corporation, which since 2010 has been owned by the Essar Group of Mumbai, India. Four other companies were named in the lawsuit, including Frasure Creek Mining and Bear Fork Resources. All the companies involved share the same address, in Scott Depot, West Virginia; it’s not clear if they are all owned by the Indian group. Whatever, the EPA lawsuit says they “do not have and have never had a valid permit authorizing discharge of fill material.”