News flash! No such thing as clean coal

Published 9:46 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

Whenever I think of the coal industry, I cannot help but think about the now-defunct New Boston Coke Corp.

The coke plant in New Boston was shut down in 2002, but before that happened a staggering environmental tragedy occurred.

In 1999, the Ohio EPA released a study that explained the level of pollution at the Scioto County plant. The results were hard to believe. A lawsuit against New Boston Coke Corp. later followed and eventually was one of the reasons it closed its doors.

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The Ohio director of the EPA then, Chris Jones, said it directly.

“Benzene levels from the New Boston Coke source and in the outdoor air are unusually high,” he said. “We are taking this action to ensure the company takes immediate steps to lower emissions and protect public health.”

For those who aren’t sure what benzene is, well, it’s safe to say it’s a carcinogen that has extremely serious health effects on human beings. And the scope of pollution in New Boston still isn’t fully understood.

That’s because the levels of benzene recorded there were significantly higher than some of the largest industrial sites in the United States. It also surpassed levels at some facilities in third-world countries.

The point of bringing all of this back up now is that there is a harsh reality for the coal industry and the areas – like ours – that benefit from the industries associated with it. Coal today is what coal has been for decades – dirty.

That’s not to suggest New Boston Coke should be a representation of the industry. But it’s a dirty process to extract and it’s a dirty process to turn into coke (even with the advanced and impressive process used by the SunCoke plants). It’s dirty, period. Not clean.

“Clean coal” technology consists of the various strategies to reduce the environmental impact of this dirty process, including washing impurities from coal, gasification, removing sulfur dioxide with steam and the capturing of carbon dioxide from flue gases.

But environmentalists believe these efforts are more propaganda than actual methods that can benefit the environment. What this effort shows is that the twisted political web of “energy independence” is a complicated one.

People in this region swear the best way down that path “to protect us from our enemies” is through clean coal technology. People in California swear it is with wind energy. In other pockets of America, many swear it should occur with natural gas. Still more swear the real answer is solar power. And, still more swear the way to go is with nuclear power.

Of course, we know the real motivation behind these strategies is not for the protection of America. It’s various groups protecting, or trying to create, their financial opportunities. The people who actually have the job of protecting America – our lawmakers – are often compromised in this effort because of their affiliations with those various groups.

In the context of this political web, there are legitimate economic development opportunities. And each of those methods has its own merits.

But voters should be cognizant that “energy independence” has as more to do with these groups’ fight for a bigger piece of the pie than it does with their commitment to create a safer America.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that might just believe that coal is clean.