“Clean” coal gets support from candidates amid new concern from residents


Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken have both recently touted their support for “clean” coal while campaigning in Minnesota’s Iron Range, where Excelsior Energy has a $2 billion plan to construct up to three coal-fired power plants. Federal licensing for the Mesaba Energy Project is still under review.

Coleman is a vocal supporter of the project and has sponsored the Carbon Dioxide Pipeline Study Act of 2007 requiring federal departments to make recommendations on safety and environmental issues that “will promote the development of a working CO2 pipeline infrastructure.”

“We have at least a 250-year supply of coal and projects like this can help provide low-cost energy and reduce the threat to our national security. And it can be done in an environmentally-friendly way,” Coleman said.

Franken says he hasn’t made a decision on the Mesaba Energy Project but supports “clean” coal technology.

“I think we should be a leader in all these technologies, because other countries are going to be burning coal,” Franken said.

While business leaders welcome the new jobs and money a power plant would bring to the area, many local residents are concerned about environmental risk. An article in The Washington Independent will likely heighten those concerns.

Suemedha Sood reports on a possible link between an extremely rare form of bone marrow cancer (polycythemia vera) and fly ash, a residue generated in the combustion of coal.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s own research, coal ash dumping can lead to higher rates of cancer, developmental problems in children and adverse effects in women of child-bearing age. Despite the fact that coal ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, selenium, beryllium, and other toxic metals, the EPA has yet to categorize coal ash as hazardous waste. In addition, coal ash has been found to be up to 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste, due to the concentrations of uranium and thorium that increase 10-fold after coal is burned.

“Clean” coal is coal that is chemically washed of impurities and gasified before being burned. The gas emissions from the combustion are treated with steam to remove sulfur dioxide and then re-burned to make the carbon dioxide recoverable. While this process improves the emissions, Sood reports that “clean” coal plants produce five times as much ash as regular coal-fired plants and comes from coal with more impurities.

These plants inject limestone into the burn chamber to capture more emissions and therefore release fewer emissions — thus the misnomer, “clean.” But, the limestone leaves behind a burned residual, which ends up in the ash. The bigger problem is that “clean” plants burn more waste-coal than actual coal. Waste-coal consists of the impurities removed from coal in addition to some coal itself, and it contains an ash content that’s three times higher than regular coal. Most of the new “clean” coal plants proposed in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states will be located next to mines expected to serve as dump sites for coal ash.

Most of the environmental concerns about the Mesaba project have revolved around air and water quality to this point. Fly ash disposal is one more dirty reality that proponents of “clean” coal will need to address as Mesaba energy and other coal-fired projects like Big Stone II vie to become the solution to our growing clean-energy needs.