Gloria Reuben on the Dirty Lie of Clean Coal

TreeHugger: Part and parcel of this whole coal mining thing is this notion of clean coal. What's going on with this?

Reuben: Well, it's such a false statement. It's such an oxymoron, the two words, "clean coal." No such thing exists. It's just a huge and well-run marketing ploy that big coal has put upon the American public. Even Vice President Al Gore has said, for as long as I have known him talk about this issue, that there is no such thing as clean coal.

Coal-fired power plants emit a third of the greenhouse gases, a third of the CO2, into our air every year here in the United States. So to capture CO2--even though the technology is not there yet to be able to do so--but if we could capture all the CO2 that comes out of coal-fired power plants, it still would never make coal clean because of the things we just mentioned about mountaintop removal.

When you talk about mercury being spewed into the air from these coal-fired power plants: 50 tons of mercury every year poison our waterways, poison our fish, and poison our bodies. Every single state in the United States has a freshwater fish advisory because of high levels of mercury.

After they blast off these mountaintops they dump the debris in surrounding waterways. To this date, about 2,000 miles of rivers and streams have been buried--not just debris here and there, completely buried. And then, again, there are these toxic lagoons that are filled with sludge, the waste product from burning coal that seeps heavy metals into the groundwater.

Last December in Harriman, Tennessee one of these lagoons overflowed because of heavy rains. And it spilled a billion gallons of this toxic sludge over three hundred acres. So that's the equivalent of a foot of this stuff covering three thousand acres.

And there are about 1,300 of these lagoons all across the United States. So all of these other factors are in play. It does not equal clean coal. Nothing can ever equal clean coal. And now that we all know this, we can say it time and time again; but until we take action, it's just words. Now is the time to really make the transition from burning fossil fuels to the clean energy resources that we have abundantly on this planet today.

We know what those are: the sun, the wind, geothermal. I know this cannot happen overnight, but my thoughts and my feelings are that instead of spending the money and the time and the technology on CO2 sequestration, let's put that energy, literally all of those energies--the money, the time, the effort, the intelligence--into implementing ways to finally get off of this archaic method of creating energy. We have to do it once and for all.

But you see, big coal, particularly in West Virginia, it's a generational thing. That industry has had a hold of that region of this country for many, many years. Politicians' pockets are lined and some of the judges, their pockets are lined with these multi-billion dollar industries that have been able to do whatever they wanted for a long time.

But thanks to Water Keeper Alliance, thanks to Bobby Kennedy Jr., Al Gore, the campaigns that both the Alliance of Climate Protection and Water Keeper Alliance and countless other environmental organizations are doing right now, the campaigns that we're running, the awareness is beginning to get out there.

And I tell you, I went to West Virginia and I met and sat with and talked with a number of people that are in those communities, that somehow are still surviving in these communities. There is no question in my mind that we have got to make a change now for the individual, for the United States citizen, that has been living in those conditions for far too long.

Let's get them healthier. Let's put them to work on clean energy jobs. We can do that and we just need to do it. It's just simple. It's not easy but it's a simple thing to do.

TreeHugger: What's your assessment of the Obama administration's progress so far in getting to where you're talking about?

Reuben: It's very helpful when the leader of the United States believes in the science, knows that climate change is happening, and is taking the steps to try and halt or at least slow down the ramifications of climate change. And the EPA, Lisa Jackson, these are terrific people. They've taken this issue seriously and President Obama is definitely taking this issue seriously.

However it seems that, particularly recently, just from the news that I've gathered that's come out of his visit to China, there seems to be an overall agreement that there will not be some kind of international, unified vision or agreement on the issue of climate change when everyone meets in Copenhagen in a few weeks.

That's disappointing. And again, I know that things take time, no question, but we don't have a lot of time to waste. And this country has been in dire need of regaining its lead around the world on issues like climate change, on issues like the environment, on issues like human rights, on issues like the economy.

And these kinds of things are slowly shifting, and President Obama is doing an incredible job in being able to make that shift. I can't even begin to imagine the extraordinary stress and the multitude of directions that he is being pulled, just here at home with healthcare and the economy, jobs, etc.

And yet, even with those three things that I mentioned, all are affected by climate change. Health, jobs, the economy. They are all tied under the umbrella of climate change. For example, once we stop burning coal, people's health will get better, for sure, when the air is cleaner and the water is drinkable.

We can create new jobs with clean energy. That of course, in turn, stimulates the economy. Now we know that China is very much taking the lead in terms of their wind power projects and their solar projects, etc. The technology has been coming from here but it's being implemented over there.

We have got to start implementing our technology here at home. It's beginning to happen but there are a lot of forces in Washington that either don't believe that climate change is happening or are stuck in old ways, or whose pockets are lined with big industry oil and coal dollars. It's tough to move those stagnant people that aren't looking for a greater good for all.

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