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Gerald Winegrad: Coal is killing us. The sooner we stop burning it, the better for all. | COMMENTARY

Brandon Shores is one of two coal-fired plants in Anne Arundel County and four in Maryland.
Brandon Shores is one of two coal-fired plants in Anne Arundel County and four in Maryland. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Each minute of every day, our decisions on our electrical use profoundly affect public health and the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our planet. We have the ability to choose how that electricity is generated and how much we use.

Unless you purchase 100% clean, renewable energy from wind and solar power or use solar panels, you are responsible for promoting the burning of coal as 24% of BGE’s electricity comes from coal. Natural gas accounts for 37% and nuclear power provides 34%.

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The mining, burning, and disposal of coal wastes make it the most dangerous fuel on earth. The use of coal should be ended as rapidly as possible. There is no more destructive land use practice than dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops, destroying their forests, and dumping the debris in stream valleys to reach coal seams. This has caused wholesale habitat destruction and mudslides.

Deep mines also present grave environmental problems. Streams feeding Western Maryland rivers are poisoned daily from acid mine drainage from coal extraction. Local wells are polluted. Miners die in cave-ins, fires, and from black lung disease.

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Burning coal is the largest source of U.S. mercury emissions. Mercury is a highly potent neurotoxin that adversely affects the central nervous system and is particularly dangerous for pregnant and breastfeeding women and for children. Mercury is found in 10 Maryland fish species (including rockfish) causing consumption warnings.

Coal-burning produces nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that cause smog and fine particle pollution. A 2005 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found emissions from six Maryland coal-fired power plants caused 700 premature deaths, 30,000 asthma attacks, and 400 pediatric emergency room visits annually. These same chemicals rain down on the bay system as acid rain killing healthy trees, affecting wildlife, and corroding buildings and water pipes.

Coal burning is a significant source of nitrogen, the major Bay pollutant causing dead zones and fueling fish kills. We are spending billions of dollars to reduce nitrogen flows while still burning coal.

Coal is responsible for 21% of all global warming carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion which causes 93% of U.S. human-linked CO2 emissions.

Coal-burning leaves a less-known poisonous legacy—the disposal of millions of tons of coal ash residue. Since 1906, when the first Maryland coal-fired power plant was built, hundreds of millions of tons of coal ash have been buried in our soils. Until recently, this occurred without liners or other environmental safeguards. Coal ash leaches hazardous toxins and carcinogens into ground and surface waters including arsenic, lead and mercury.

From 1995-2007, BGE dumped 4.6 million tons of coal ash from the Brandon Shores power plant into an old Gambrills gravel quarry. Unsafe levels of toxins and carcinogens contaminated residential wells. In 2008, Constellation Energy (BGE’s successor) settled a lawsuit with residents for $54 million. The Waugh Chapel Towne Centre is built on the capped site and it is still leaching toxins into groundwater some headed toward Crofton.

There are 55 other Maryland coal ash disposal sites, many releasing toxins into ground and surface waters. The Brandywine site contains 8 million coal ash tons, steadily contaminating groundwater — one of the nation’s worst sites. Nationally, 91% of such sites are contaminating groundwater. Laws are needed to better regulate all coal ash dumps.

President Donald Trump is doing all he can to promote coal burning and repeal common-sense safeguards. He appointed a coal lobbyist as head of the EPA who just announced weakening regulations that forced coal plants to use better technology that would reduce pollutants being discharged into our rivers by 1.4 billion pounds including arsenic and mercury.

Despite these efforts, coal use is declining mainly from switches to cheaper fracked natural gas. More than 60 coal-fired power plants have closed since the president took office (320 since 2010). In 2019, coal production fell to its lowest level since 1978. Coal supplied 25% of the country’s electricity last year, down from half in 2010. Unfortunately, four coal plants remain in Maryland, two of them in Anne Arundel County.

Wind and solar are projected to provide 79% of new generating capacity in 2020, the other 21% from natural gas. Wind and solar accounted for only 9% of electricity production in 2019 and while natural gas produces 50% less CO2 than coal, methane emissions in its production make its use problematic.

Don’t be fooled: clean coal is an oxymoron. Each time you turn on your heat or a/c or leave a computer or light on, think global warming, acid rain, mercury contamination, nitrogen pollution of the Bay, massive forest and stream destruction, and human sickness and deaths—unless you choose clean energy.


Want to choose clean energy? Save money and energy. Follow the critical steps I laid out in a March 4 column at capitalgazette.com.

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