Multinational Monitor

NOV/DEC 2006
VOL 27 NO. 6


J'Accuse: The 10 Worst Corporations of 2007
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Meet the War Profiteers
by Charlie Cray

Multinationals to China: No New
Labor Rights

by Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith and
Tim Costello

Wall Street Rallies for Bush - And Seeks Payback
by Andrew Wheat


King Coal's Dark Reign
An Interview with
Jeff Goodell


Behind the Lines

(No) Shame On the Street

The Front
Rural Bank Window Closed - Feudalism in Pakistan

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Note
Capitalism 3.0 - A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons

Names In the News


King Coal's Dark Reign

An interview with Jeff Goodall

Jeff Goodell is the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He is also the author, along with the trapped miners, of Our Story: 77 Hours that Tested our Friendship and our Faith, based on the time nine Quecreek miners spent trapped underground.

Multinational Monitor: What is Big Coal?

Jeff Goodell: Big Coal is an alliance of very powerful companies and industries. There are larger political and economic forces behind coal than just the coal mining companies. They include the companies that burn coal — public utilities and energy companies that run the power plants — as well as the railroads that haul the coal across America. Their revenues are highly dependent upon coal and they are a powerful lobbying force for the continued use of coal.

MM: Why hasn’t coal mining made West Virginia rich?

Goodell: If coal mining were the ticket to prosperity that the coal mining industry often says it is, West Virginians should be dancing on gold-paved streets. Many billions of tons of coal have come out of West Virginia and they’re still one of the poorest states in the nation.

The essential problem is that coal has always been mined by corporations and the profits have gone straight to the corporations and not to the people who mine the coal.

Many people are familiar with the labor abuses of the coal industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century with child labor. That kind of thing is over now, but coal mining is still a commodity business. It’s a low-wage business where all the profits go to the company and very little goes to the people who actually mine the coal. For example, Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Energy, the largest coal company in West Virginia, made over $30 million in 2005, while most miners in the state were struggling just to pay the rent. 

In West Virginia, particularly, the industry has been very good at keeping the state dependent on coal revenues; they’ve been very successful in keeping other kinds of industry out. The coal industry makes it very clear that they don’t like people having alternatives for jobs.

The coal industry likes to say that what’s good for coal is good for West Virginia, but the history of coal mining shows exactly the opposite.

MM: What is mountaintop removal?

Mountaintop removal mining is a kind of highly mechanized mining that is becoming increasingly popular in Appalachia. Instead of removing the coal from the mountain in the way that traditional underground mining does, you remove the mountain from the coal.

The companies use ammonium nitrate and other explosives to blow apart mountains to get to the coal seam, so they can dig it out with big mechanical shovels. And then they dump the fill — the mountain that’s been blown up — into riverbeds and creek beds. When they’re done mining the coal, they supposedly put it back in something resembling the state it was in before, but often they don’t do a very good job of that.

MM: Is this mining practice a recent innovation?

Goodell: It is an outgrowth of strip-mining, which really began in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s. The problem with it now is that the machinery and the explosives have gotten much more powerful, so these mines have gotten much, much larger. They now cover thousands of acres — it’s a sort of strip-mining on steroids. It is not really new, it’s just become more pervasive. It is also becoming more necessary in Appalachia as Wyoming and western coal becomes more popular because its much easier to get out of the ground.

MM: Is there anyway to remedy the problems of mountaintop removal or does it just need to be a banned practice?

Goodell: In theory, there are better and worse ways of doing it. Tougher restrictions on filling in creeks and rivers would be hugely helpful. There are some restrictions on that now and they’re widely ignored.

I don’t think it can be stopped, certainly not by straightforward law enforcement on the mining side. Eventually, the economics of it might become untenable as the buried seams get deeper and deeper. But it could certainly be reformed to be far less damaging that it is.

MM: There have been a few prominent coal miner disasters in the United States in the last few years: the one with the rescued miners at Quecreek in 2002 and the 2006 disaster at Sago Mine, when 12 miners were killed. Why do these ongoing tragedies or just-averted tragedies continue to occur?

Goodell: Coal mining is a dangerous business; you’re going underground and operating heavy equipment. To their credit, some coal operators have really good safety records; and there have been a lot of safety improvements in the last couple of decades. But you still do have a number of small operators, people who are in it to make a quick buck who disregard and shortcut around the safety regulations. The decline of the miners union has also had a big impact on this.

With almost all of these accidents, the two things they have in common is: they involve small operators who are just trying to squeeze by and make a buck; and they’re in Appalachia, where coal mining has been going on for 150 years and the coal that’s left is increasingly deeply buried and increasingly dangerous to go after. The miners are put into more and more dangerous situations; they have no union protection; and it’s very difficult for them to speak out without losing their jobs. Frankly, what amazes me is that there aren’t more deaths.

MM: Were the accidents at Quecreek and Sago preventable?

Goodell: Quecreek has a long back story to it. The reason the Quecreek accident happened was they ran into another mine that was full with water. They cut into another mine, which released this tremendous flood and filled up the mine they were in. There’s lots of debate as to whether they should have known that mine was there. I was there, covered the accident and spent a lot of time with the miners who were trapped. My view is: yes, the company should have known; yes, this was a totally preventable accident; and it was another example of the loose restrictions on mining.

The Sago operation is more complicated. The investigation that was recently concluded in West Virginia was inconclusive as to what caused it. There’s a notion that it was caused by a lightning strike, but there were clearly a number of safety violations in that mine. To West Virginia’s credit, they’ve done a pretty good job of investigating, and I think that the governor there is actually fairly serious about getting tough on mining operations in the state.

MM: By contrast, you write that the investigation in the aftermath of Quecreek, which is in Pennsylvania, basically piddled out with no subsequent reform or remedial action.

Goodell: Right, and there’s been very little reform or remedial action on a federal level. Bush is completely uninterested in reforming the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Until recently, the head of MSHA was a guy named Dave Lauriski, who was a real industry insider, clearly not interested in any kind of enforcement. The guy who is now the head of MSHA, Richard Strickler, is the guy who oversaw the Quecreek rescue. It is pretty clear that Strickler is not going to crack down on the mining industry.

MM: How serious is black lung as an ongoing problem for miners?

Goodell: About 1,500 minors a year die of black lung. It is an unspeakable tragedy. One of the most tragic and emotional things that I saw in the three years that I spent reporting Big Coal is the men who spent their whole lives underground working for the coal companies, for not much more than minimum wage and in dangerous conditions, in order to feed their families and who ended up with black lung.

Most of those dying from the disease are old and retired miners who worked in the mines earlier in their careers. It is less of a problem with young miners now for two reasons. First, a lot of the mining now is in larger surface mines, so the number of underground miners is declining and the proportion of miners exposed to any kind of dust is much lower than it used to be. Second, in response to tightened dust restrictions, the companies have made some safety and health improvements, although further improvements should be made.

It is hard to get good numbers on the problem. The industry doesn’t want to look hard at it and neither does the federal government. Complicating matters further, black lung is very complicated and tricky to diagnose, especially in young people.

MM: What are the key health harms from burning coal?

Goodell: Well, there’s a number. The American Lung Association estimates that 26,000 people in the United States die prematurely every year from the harmful effects of air pollution from coal plants. It is well known that pollution from coal plants — especially particulates — can trigger heart attacks and many other health problems, especially among older people, children and sick people. Researchers are still investigating connections between coal pollution and lung cancer.

Another concern has to do with mercury emissions. Coal plants are the biggest emitters of mercury in the United States and mercury is a very potent neurotoxin, which is especially damaging to pregnant women and fetuses.

There’s also much speculation about the harmful effects of coal plants’ huge emissions of other heavy metals, including cadmium and arsenic. There aren’t any really good studies on that, but those certainly have some health effects that are not well chronicled.

And then there’s the issue not of air pollution, but the ash that’s left over from burning coal, then dumped into what are called “ash retention ponds.” That ash is laced with pollutants and heavy metals and can sometimes seep into underground water supplies and cause problems there.

MM: Particulates are basically dust?

Goodell: Yes. Very small dust, less than a micron across. Dust smaller than the dust mites you can see floating in the air through a ray of sunshine. But the particulates created by burning coal are often coated with heavy metals or acids, which make them particularly toxic to the human body. 

MM: There has been a huge controversy over mercury regulation in the United States.

Goodell: The coal industry likes to say that mercury, like carbon dioxide, is a global problem. They say that only 1 or 2 percent of the mercury that is deposited in the United States actually comes from the burning of coal in the United States. In other words, mercury gets up into the stratosphere, drifts around, and settles down. So mercury from coal plants in China, for example, can impact the mercury deposition in Pennsylvania or Maine.

The industry argues that its emissions are just a very small part of the problem, and that it is very difficult to get mercury out of the exhaust gases of the coal plant. They say they are working really hard to get the technology, but they can’t do it yet — a typical industry line.

In fact, although it is true that mercury is a global pollutant, it is very well demonstrated that there are hot spots around particular coal plants. Some mercury does get dispersed into the global atmosphere, but a lot of it also settles around the plant itself.

Much of the regulatory fight over the last decade has been about whether there should be a cap-and-trade system — limiting the amount of mercury from all coal plants in total — or whether there should be particular controls required at each coal plant, more like a catalytic converter on a car. The industry has tried to get away with the most lax mercury regulations it can, while environmentalists and public health advocates are pushing for individual controls on each plant.

MM: The Clinton administration issued regulations before leaving office?

Goodell: One of the last things Clinton did was call for plant-by-plant regulations on mercury emission. Bush overturned that and substituted a proposal for much more industry-friendly, looser regulations, based on the idea of capping and trading. This kind of flexible program — setting an overall industry cap on emissions and letting plants work out among themselves, through a trading system, how much each will reduce emissions — did well in reducing sulfur dioxide pollution and acid rain. But it is very poorly suited to something like mercury, which has hot spots, and can build up locally in certain regions.

MM: And, at the end of the day, no new regulations were issued at all?

Goodell: There are some regulations in the works, but right now there still are no controls.

MM: So one would have to conclude the industry strategy of delay has been completely successful?

Goodell: Absolutely. It has been very successful. That’s their strategy on basically everything that comes down the pike: delay, delay, delay. The Bush Administration has played along with that wonderfully, and mercury is a textbook example of how well this sort of “obfuscate and delay” strategy has worked for the industry.

MM: What is New Source Review?

Goodell: New Source Review is part of the Clean Air Act that requires coal plant operators, when making significant changes and repairs on their coal plants, to update the pollution controls on their coal plants.

With the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1977, industry said, “Okay, we are willing to put controls on new plants, but it is too expensive and too difficult to put them on old coal plants. These old coal plants should be grandfathered in.” A deal was struck that industry had to put new controls on new plants, but old plants could escape the new rules — unless they were significantly modified.

The thing that environmentalists and public health advocates were worried about is that the industry would keep these old plants running forever. They wanted to put some provision into the law to ensure that there was some kind of trigger to ensure that, at some point, the pollution controls would be updated.

That’s where the fighting has now been for the last 15 years. There are a lot of these old plants — known in the industry as Big Dirties — that are still running. They are essentially operating without any pollution controls, even though they’ve been upgraded and fixed and repaired a number of times, because the industry has manipulated the New Source Review rule to avoid having to add pollution controls.

The industry clearly has a strategy of just running these plants into the ground. Even though these are old plants, even though they’re killers, they are incredible money machines — they’re paid off, they generate power cheaply and the industry is not going to shut these things down until they absolutely have to.

MM: How important are these old plants?

Goodell: From a public health point of view, they are very important.

In 2002, the EPA filed lawsuits against more than 50 power plants in 13 states. The health impacts from these dirty plants are 10 to 15 times greater than the health impact from a modern controlled power plant. One study estimated that air pollution from these old coal burners causes 9,000 premature deaths and 170,000 asthma attacks each year.

MM: Leaving aside the CO2 issues, what would be the cost to the industry of simply agreeing to enhanced pollution controls? Does the experience on acid rain cleanup offers any lessons?

Goodell: Well, the lesson of the acid rain cleanup is that the industry whined and bitched that sulfur dioxide reduction requirements were going to wreck the industry because of how expensive it was going to be. Then the regulations came down, and they were able to do it far more cheaply then they had claimed.

The cost of cleanup on these grandfathered plants ranges, depending on how old the plants are. There are still plants from the 1940s that are running in America and some of these old ones they would shut them down rather than add scrubbers, which can cost between $50 million and $200 million to install, depending on the size of the plant.

That’s one of the reasons that they’re fighting so hard. If utilities and electric generators had to put pollution controls on, they would just shut some of the plants down.

But in many cases, they could invest the couple hundred million dollars, which sounds like a lot, but in the context of a $1.5 billion coal plant, is really not that much. And, especially with public utilities, they would simply pass on the cost to ratepayers. Over the long term, that would equate to pennies, literally pennies, in increased energy costs for consumers. They could champion the move as a PR victory for themselves and talk about how they’re cleaning up.

But, they refuse to do it — in part because they don’t want to pay the money, in part because they don’t want to admit there is a problem, and in part because coal burning utilities simply don’t like to be told what to do, either by politicians or, god forbid, environmentalists.

MM: How important are CO2 emissions from burning coal?

Goodell: Huge. More than a third of man-made CO2 emissions come from coal plants.

Right now, TXU, a big energy company in Texas, is proposing to build 11 new coal plants in the state. The annual emissions from those 11 plants would equal the average annual emissions of 11 million SUVs. [Ed: The takeover firm of Kohlberg, Kravis has now proposed buying TXU, and building three plants instead of the publicly floated proposal for 11.]

A plant in Georgia, one of the largest point sources of carbon dioxide in America, and also one of the biggest coal plants, emits 25 million tons a year of carbon dioxide.

MM: Your view is, whatever the harms of coal, the reality is that we are going burn it and we have to figure out the best way to do it?

Goodell: Right.

MM: You are optimistic about some emerging technologies?

I am. My optimism is sorely tested by a lot of what is going on right now, but there are ways to burn coal and to use coal that are less harmful than the ways that we do it now.

There is a new technology called coal gasification, or IGCC. Instead of burning coal in the old-fashioned way, where you break it up into bits of dust and blow it into a big fire box to heat water, you instead use a chemical process using pressure and heat to refine the gas out of coal, and you then burn that.

It’s a much, much cleaner way of using coal to generate power. It allows you to capture and potentially sequester underground the carbon dioxide. Sequestration is certainly not a magic bullet — there are still lots of issues to be addressed about leakage and the safety of burying CO2. But it is clearly the path to the future for coal.

But the industry is resisting this change, as they resist every change, and doing their damnedest to throw up another generation of old coal-burners.

Especially when you look on an international scale, at what’s going on in China, where they are building a new coal plant every two weeks, this is very serious. We are seeing the complete failure of Kyoto to stop the rise of CO2 emissions. It is hard to be optimistic.

MM: In Big Coal, you juxtapose the coal industry to Silicon Valley and its culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. Why has the coal industry been so resistant to technological change and adaptation?

Because for the last 100 years, they’ve relied on political leverage and power to protect themselves from market forces.

That was the great innovation of Samuel Insull, sort of the Steve Jobs of the electric power industry. A protégé of Edison’s, he took over his own power company, Commonwealth Edison, in Chicago and operated in the 1920s. His great innovation was the idea that utilities were a natural monopoly. He proposed the creation of a quasi-regulatory body called a public utilities commission, which he knew he could control. And so the utilities have had a protected monopoly on electric power generation in America.

Today’s electric power industry is a legacy of that original vision of Samuel Insull. They are only just now beginning to have to deal with market forces, and they don’t like it. Because of the enormous political influence of Big Coal — the mining companies, the railroads and the energy companies that burn coal — and because of the complexities of electrical power generation, they have a very powerful position to put off any kind of changes and to continue with the status quo. And that is pretty much what they are doing.

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