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The first major earthquake recorded in Australian history rocked residents of Newcastle on December 28, 1989. Ten years later, on the other side of the planet, an earthquake hit Saarland , Germany. Separated by time and space, these anomalous quakes might have seemed completely unrelated. They weren’t. Geophysicists have controversially identified a common trigger: coal mining. They point out that coal-mining operations can collapse land surfaces, divert waterways, and drain wetlands. Generations of mining can induce quakes that are now compromising previously seismically stable regions throughout the world. Newcastle ’s earthquake led to deaths, injuries, and $3.5 billion in damage, more than the value of all of the coal ever extracted from the region.1 Nevertheless , earthquakes may rank among the lesser concerns of mining, processing, and burning this fuel. 6. Conjuring Clean Coal Call it a lie, if you like, but a lie is a sort of myth and a myth is a sort of truth. –Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac  Coal in Sixty Seconds or Less Archeologists trace coal use back to China and Roman Britain during the Bronze Age, about three thousand to four thousand years ago. Today, nations burn coal to generate electricity, distill biofuels, heat buildings, smelt metals, and refine cement. Half of America’s electricity comes from coal, along with 70 percent of electricity in India and 80 percent in China.2 Coal is more widely available throughout the world than hydropower, oil, and gas. It’s got a lower sticker price too. Understandably, coal attracts world leaders concerned about regional energy security . For these geographic, economic, and political reasons, it is problematic to assume that countries will willingly stop unearthing their coal reserves unless cheaper and equally secure alternatives arise. Even in rich Australia, a federal minister quipped, “The coal industry produces 80 percent of our energy and the reality is that Australia will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of its expanding power requirements, for as long as the reserves last.”3 In fact, the International Energy Agency (iea) expects the coal sector’s growth to outpace all other sectors, including nuclear, oil, natural gas, and renewables. The problem, of course, is that despite its many benefits, coal is still dirty—in so many ways. Burning coal releases more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel per unit of resulting energy ; it yields more than two times the co2 of natural gas. Coal features infamously in dialogs involving international ethics, workers’ rights, and community impacts more broadly. Here’s the critics’ short list: • Air pollution: The sky’s vast quantity of visible stars reported- ly shocked Beijing residents during a coal-burning ban in prep- aration for the Olympic Games in 2008. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, London, New York, and other industrialized cities were known for their characteristic coal smog that killed Seductive Futures  thousands of people. Today, air quality in these cities is much improved due largely to better coal-burning practices. How- ever, combustion is still the primary source of heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and low-level ion- izing radiation associated with coal use. Toxic emissions from mining and transportation are also significant.4 • Water contamination: Mining, transporting, storing, and burn- ing coal also pollutes water aquifers, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Coal-washing facilities alone eject tens of millions of tons of waste into water supplies every year.5 • Land degradation: Above-ground coal mining destroys prai- ries, levels forests, and lops off mountain peaks. • Fly-ash waste: Coal plants generally capture fly ash, a byprod- uct of coal combustion, which often ends up in unlined land- fills, allowing toxins to leach out or blow away.6 • Occupational risks: Poisonous gases, tunnel collapses, flooding, and explosions kill thousands of coal miners every year. Tens of thousands are seriously injured and exposed to long-term respiratory hazards including radioactive fumes. • Community health risks: One prominent study published in Sci- ence reviewed the widespread practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States and found that local residents also suffer from unusually high rates of chronic pulmonary dis- orders, hypertension, lung cancer, chronic heart disease, and kidney disease.7 The report’s lead author, Margaret Palmer, of the University of Maryland, stated, “Scientists are not usu- ally that comfortable coming out with policy recommenda- tions, but this time the results were overwhelming . . . the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped.”8 This list...


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