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The Return of Coal to Prominence on the Energy Scene and its Toll on the Environment

Updated on August 1, 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency’s history museum – located in a single room in the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington D.C. and open free to the public on weekdays – has only been open for less than a year, and its displays proudly highlight environmentally-friendly accomplishments of the EPA such as the Paris Accords, the Clean Power Plan, and the many steps taken in the global fight against the threat of Climate Change. That is, it did until recently, when – in an attempt to bring the museum more in-line with the priorities of the fledgling Donald J. Trump Presidential Administration – many of the displays touting “green” initiatives were removed in favor of “darker” initiatives…darker, as in coal.

Yes, the EPA’s history museum now displays, among other things, pictures of the agency’s chief, Scott Pruitt – himself a self-avowed Climate Change denier – advertising the EPA’s new “back to basics” agenda by shaking hands with coal miners in Pennsylvania, a sight that had previously been unthinkable. Yet it has happened…the previous progress the United States had made in the field of renewable and clean energy sources is being rolled back in favor of stripping environmental regulations originally indented to catapult the country into the future, thus giving power back into the hands of those who are most guilty of polluting our planet. Coal, while an important energy source for a number of years, has had its day; now an outdated, inefficient, and obsolete method of generating power, its industry has spent a number of years slowly but surely winding down. Yet this fundamental change to a simple, small museum – replacing exhibits centering on renewable energy advocacy with those of coal – represents a large-scale shift in how this administration views the environment. However, all is not gloom and doom for the museum, or the planet, thankfully.

While the bizarre decision of eschewing climate change displays at the EPA history museum in favor of coal is just that – bizarre – some of Scott Pruitt’s more restrained and even environmentally friendly initiatives will be highlighted as well. It has been noted that aspects of the museum that fall in line with the Trump Administration’s more positive environmental views will be beefed up and/or added, including new Superfund programs – which provide funding up-front for cleaning up pollution when property owners either can’t or won’t – as well as new bipartisan regulations signed into law that govern a variety of chemicals that can be deemed harmful to the public, in addition to many of the agricultural measures the EPA undertakes on a regular basis. These are all good things, naturally, although the elimination of clean energy verbiage in favor of coal remains strange and troubling, as the EPA – under previous management – has unilaterally stated that burning coal, gas, and oil is the single-greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emission, and that said greenhouse gases are one of the single-greatest threats to human beings on the planet, especially as they build up over time in the atmosphere.

But even though the EPA is playing a different tune these days on coal, there are plenty of other organizations that are offering the plain facts and figures on what coal is doing to our planet; according to reports by the Union for Concerned Scientists, coal plants are the nation's top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the primary cause of global warming. In 2011, utility coal plants in the United States emitted a total of 1.7 billion tons of CO21. In addition, other harmful pollutants emitted annually from a typical 500 megawatt coal plant include Sulfur dioxide (14,100 tons per year), Nitrogen oxides (10,300 tons per year), and Particulate matter (500 tons per year), among many others, including:

  • 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium. Baghouses can reduce heavy metal emissions by up to 90 percent3.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide, which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.

There’s also the actual coal mining process to consider as well; while underground mining offers some basic environmental hazards but is relatively safe for the most part – except for the miners themselves, that is, many of whom suffer debilitating respiratory issues after long-term exposure to coal dust – Surface mines (AKA strip mines) are another story. Surface mining involves removing surface soil from mountaintops and other land masses to get to coal deposits via explosives, which changes the landscape and covers nearby streams and lakes with rocks and dirt; in addition, matter discharged from this process may contain pollutants that can harm wildlife.

While the Trump administration claims they want to save the jobs of hard-working coal miners who have fallen on hard times due to harsh regulations that have hurt their industry, the fact is that coal consumption by industries has fallen by the wayside and has been decreasing regularly over the decades, separate from any governmental regulatory oversight or rules. While an entire profession slowly falling into obsolescence is indeed sad, prolonging its end it is not the answer…not for the workers, or for the environment. Instead, many environmentalists – such as noted green blog YellowPagesGoesGreen.org – feel that education is the way to go. Train coal workers in the aspects of clean energy and adapting to a changing job landscape and it’s new and evolving demands, and they too can continue to provide for their families while also contributing to the health and well-being of not only their fellow man and woman, but the Earth as well.

Yes, the clean energy and climate change exhibits are being downsized and/or outright replaced at the Environmental Protection Agency’s history museum; however, that will not change the facts about that it will take to save our planet.

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    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 

      13 months ago from New Jersey

      It's too bad the Trump administration is embracing a by·gone energy source like coal, which dominated the energy scene for a time in the 19th century and played a big role in providing energy during the 20th century. It's the 21st Century! Renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, and becoming more practical each year, as large battery storage becomes a reality. We should be looking forward rather than backward when it comes to energy.

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