Let’s talk dirty

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

DEAFENING silence. That was my high school teacher’s example of an oxymoron. It so captured my imagination I instantly understood what an oxymoron is.

But my favorite oxymoron is clean coal.

Coal plant representatives always claim they use clean-coal technology. I have either heard or read similar claims from coal plants in Sarangani and Davao. And I’m sure all 17 coal plants in the pipeline right now have had made proud claims that they will be using clean-coal technology.

One of my favorite fantasies is suing these coal plants for deceptive sales and practices under the Consumer Act.

Taking you in for a ride

Does your existing or proposed coal plant in the neighborhood boasts of carbon capture and storage? Well, they’re taking you in for a ride. This technology is not yet commercially available. How about circulating fluidized bed combustion and electrostatic precipitators? These technologies merely mitigate pollution (Sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, in particular). MITIGATES. It doesn’t clean the coal.

By how much does it mitigate pollution from coal plants? If STEAG, the model coal-fired power plant that Conal and Thermal South always showcase, has these technologies, how come they are not transparent about their emissions? They should publish it on their website.

Maybe they don’t want to be associated with particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and other heavy metals. Healthcare Research Collaborative based in University of Illinois reports that these pollutants cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

In other words, lung and heart diseases and, yes, even cancer. Children, the elderly, and those with asthma are especially vulnerable, including pregnant women as these pollutants are linked to low birth weight and increase in infant mortality.

Four laws of ecology

One of the four laws of ecology is “Everything must go somewhere.” The dark smoke missing from coal plant smokestacks are collected as coal ash or sludge in ponds. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash contains heavy metals that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system.

In 2008, the earthen wall of a coal plant’s ash pond in Tennessee gave way and 5.4 million cubic yard of wet coal ash flooded communities and contaminated a nearby river. It’s considered as one of the largest environmental disasters of its kind.

Lastly, according to the World Resources Institute, “coal-fired power plants are the largest contributor to greenhouse gases that causes climate change.” That’s why some coal plants oh so proudly proclaim that they have set aside hundreds of hectares to tree planting to absorb carbon dioxide emission. But how can these trees act as carbon sink when these are usually planted only a few years before the coal plant operates? And even when these trees mature, they are just not enough.

Now comes the scary part.

Coal plants are required under the Clean Air Act to submit quarterly self-monitoring reports of their emissions; self-monitoring, take note, which is susceptible to self-serving reporting. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) people are mandated by law to verify these but do they?

The latest report I could find is Environmental Management Bureau’s (EMB) National Air Quality Status Report for 2005-2007. It’s supposed to summarize the extent of air pollution in the country, per type of pollutant, and per type of source. But it only has this to say about coal plants: “The combustion of coal emits oxides of Sulfur and Nitrogen as well as Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere. However, these are minimized or eliminated through the use of clean coal technologies such as fluidized bed combustion, flue gas de-sulfurization and electrostatic precipitation.”

The report is awfully silent on coal plant emissions such as particulate matters mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic.

Now who wants to make my fantasy a reality?


[Email: suijeneris@gmail.com]

(Atty. Jennifer L. Ramos provides legal services and advice on environmental issues to government agencies and local government units. She conducts training on environmental laws, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction and management.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 18, 2013.


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