WU can do better than coal

Bruce Nilles | Op-Ed Submission

Prestigious colleges and universities like Washington University have the potential, capacity and responsibility to lead the nation when it comes to making the right choices. They are the centers of research and innovation that develop the models, ideas and young people who will transform our world and lead to better living standards, a more secure nation and a healthier society.

Yet at a time when so many Americans are demanding clean energy, why are so many of our institutions of higher education still relying on and supporting such a dirty and outdated energy source as coal?

From the mine, to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest energy source. It causes asthma and other health problems, destroys our mountains and releases toxic mercury into our communities.

We cannot continue to rely on this dirty and dangerous source of power. That’s why I’m excited to debate Fred Palmer, senior vice president of government relations at Peabody Energy, on Tuesday, April 27, at Graham Chapel here on the Washington University campus.

We’ve seen our nation’s college campuses become great activism centers around our greatest environmental threat: global warming. Young people are laying the groundwork for our clean energy future, and they’ve got the coal—which is responsible for more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution—in their sights.

Coal provides about half of our nation’s electricity, but here in Missouri, it’s responsible for 84 percent of the state’s power. We all know the Show Me State can do better.

Coal plants are dangerously outdated. Nearly half of our existing coal fleet began operating more than 50 years ago, and many of these plants lack modern pollution controls, making them major sources of mercury, soot, smog and global warming pollution.

Pollution from coal creates significant health impacts, including asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory issues. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, pollution from coal plants has been linked to four of the top five leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease. These impacts are suffered right here on the Wash. U. campus, which is located in a county that violates federal air-quality standards for smog (also known as “ozone”), a dangerous pollutant that is largely caused by pollution from coal plants in the metro area.

Coal plants are also one of the largest sources of man-made mercury pollution in the U.S. Mercury pollution causes brain damage and other developmental problems in unborn children and infants and has been linked to a greater risk of coronary heart disease in men.

Pollution from coal plants adds $62 billion a year to health care costs, according to the National Academy of Sciences, and research from the American Lung Association shows that coal pollution causes 12,000 hospitalizations, 38,000 heart attacks and 24,000 deaths each year.

And that’s just what burning it does. Mountaintop removal coal mining devastates Appalachian communities and watersheds, as coal companies blow the tops off mountains to get at a seam of coal, and then dump the waste into nearby streams and valleys.

Once coal is burned, its ash is very toxic, containing harmful metals and chemicals like arsenic, lead and selenium. This coal ash is dumped into unlined piles and waste ponds, where it seeps into the ground and water tables. Or, even worse, the waste ponds can rupture, just as one did near Harriman, Tenn., in December 2008, destroying homes and permanently damaging the landscape.

This all shows what a bad investment coal is. It’s unhealthy and it destroys communities. Instead of spending millions to artificially extend the life of the outdated fleet of coal-fired power plants, it is time to phase out this old way of generating power and transition to clean energy technologies, like wind, solar and efficiency, that will power the future and create good paying jobs for Americans.

Clean energy technologies are available and already creating thousands of jobs around the country. An October 2009 study by researchers at the University of Illinois, Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, shows that clean energy investments will create as many as 1.9 million jobs nationally by 2020. Those are jobs that Wash. U. and other college grads will be seeking out over time.

And no matter what our opponents say, capturing the carbon pollution from coal plants does not make coal clean. As I’ve noted, there is a host of other dirty problems associated with coal.

Continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future. I hope you’ll join me at the debate against Peabody Energy’s Fred Palmer on Tuesday, April 27. Let’s stand up for clean energy together.

Bruce Nilles is the director of the Sierra Club’s nationwide Beyond Coal campaign. To reach him, see

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