Chuck Nelson needs a smoke. He lights a Marlboro while steering his Mitsubishi Eclipse along the winding roads of West Virginia’s coalfields. A slight man with a raspy voice, Nelson spent 30 years working underground in the mines. He drives fast because he’s late and because these roads course through him like veins. He’s lived in these mountains since he was born.
In this part of Appalachia, there are no luxury condos. It’s mostly trailers and rundown houses with pickup trucks out front.
The coal industry has nearly taken over these hills, and at times it feels as if you’ve left America. Along Route 3, Nelson points to one industrial complex after the next, each with tubes snaking up and down the hillside—they’re preparation plants where coal is washed before it’s shipped to power plants. He points to dozens of onyx-colored pyramids, piles of coal as tall as buildings.
“See that ridge up there?” Nelson says. “On the other side of that, the coal companies are blasting every day. Blasting the mountains right off.”
After hearing that people in a nearby town were getting sick, possibly from coal waste in their water, Nelson and others started taking samples from their wells. The samples, a dozen Mason jars containing different-colored liquids, are in his trunk. One looks like coffee with cream, another like iced tea.
Nelson thought he’d stop thinking about coal when he retired from the mines. He thought he’d keep quiet after a coal company bought his home to appease him; so much dust had been blowing into his house from a nearby prep plant that Nelson’s asthmatic wife couldn’t breathe. But he can’t stay quiet. In his mind, coal is destroying the communities it used to lift up.
He asks: “How many people in other states, when they go to flip on their light switch, stop and think: Where’s this power coming from, and what is the true cost of it?”
Until a storm knocks out power, we take for granted that a steady stream of electricity will keep Washington humming. But power has to come from somewhere, and in our region about half of it comes from coal-burning power plants.
Coal-fired electricity has gained popularity because it’s the most reliable and least expensive source on the grid. The rising cost of natural gas makes gas-fired power plants unpopular. No nuclear-power plant has been built since the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
According to the National Mining Association, the United States has more than 265 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves, enough to last for 240 years at today’s usage rates.
“We refer to ourselves as the Saudi Arabia of coal—we actually possess more coal reserves than all of the Middle East has oil,” says Kraig Naasz, president of the National Mining Association. “It’s the advantage the US has over the rest of the world.”
But climate scientists have a problem with coal-fired power plants: The planet is warming in part because of their CO2 emissions. According to the Sierra Club, coal emits about 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions—carbon is the prime global-warming pollutant—second only to petroleum. If all of the planned coal plants are built, that will increase carbon emissions by 15 percent.
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones fighting coal. Residents of Old Town Alexandria are hoping to shut down an aging coal-fired power plant that they say sprinkles soot onto their balconies and sends pollutants into their lungs. Residents of Wise County, Virginia, are fighting to stop construction of a planned coal plant.
But what would Washington do without coal? The area’s population is growing. All those new houses, flat-screen televisions, and laptops need power. The West Virginia Coal Association says the average Internet user, online 12 hours a week, uses 300 pounds of coal every year.
According to Naasz, by 2030 the nation’s electricity needs will increase by nearly 30 percent. To keep up with demand, he says, we’re going to need more coal-fired power plants.
If Chuck Nelson followed the coal leaving West Virginia, he might end up in Washington. Most of the Washington area’s six coal-fired power plants burn coal from West Virginia. Coal from the southern part of the state is low in sulfur dioxide, making it easier for plants to meet pollution controls. The coal is shipped in on trains, sometimes 50 or more railcars long.
“It’s hard trying to get everyone to understand that the people in New York and Baltimore and DC could not conduct their daily lives without the coal miner in West Virginia,” says Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
The spike in oil prices has helped increase demand for coal. In the past three years, spot-market prices for Appalachian coal have risen from between $50 and $60 a ton to more than $100. Some companies have reduced underground mining production, and the industry is using more-efficient computerized equipment, which has reduced the number of miners.
In 1952, more than 100,000 people were employed by West Virginia’s coal industry; in 2006, about 20,500 were. As a result, residents say their towns are disappearing. Most storefronts in Nelson’s hometown of Whitesville are empty.
The Appalachian coal industry is increasingly turning to mountaintop mining, which critics call “mountaintop removal.” Miners strip trees from mountains, blast open peaks, dump the waste into valleys, and excavate the coal seams using a bucket large enough to hold more than 20 compact cars.