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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Big Coal’ Explores Growing Reliance on Coal to Detriment of Environment

Posted by kinchendavid on September 16, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – America’s addiction to coal to produce electricity is dangerous to the environment, hazardous to our health and is standing in the way of new technology, charges Jeff Goodell in his wide-ranging and comprehensive “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future” (Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, notes, index, $25.95).

Three years in the researching, “Big Coal” takes the reader from West Virginia to Wyoming to Pennsylvania to China and many stops in between to learn how – instead of using less of the dirtiest fuel to generate electricity for a power-hungry nation – we’re using more. Goodell, a veteran journalist who is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, is the author of a best-selling book about the September 2001 Quecreek mine incident, “Our Story.”

The nine Pennsylvania miners were rescued, unlike the Jan. 2, 2006 Sago disaster in West Virginia, where 12 of the 13 who were trapped died, with only Randal McCloy Jr. surviving. Goodell believes Sago was the result of lax policies at MSHA in the Bush Administration that have contributed to increasingly dangerous conditions in underground mines. He points out that MSHA – the Mine Safety and Health Administration – was presided over during the Clinton Administration by “J. Davit McAteer, a lawyer and mine safety expert who was no friend of Big Coal. Then, in 2001, President George W. Bush restored the tradition of cronyism and lax enforcement by giving the top job at MSHA to Dave Lauriski…known for his belief that the coal industry should be given increasing latitude to police itself.”

Goodell notes (Page 72) that Lauriski resigned in 2004, shortly after the presidential election, “under a cloud of scandal”…a cloud that didn’t prevent him from landing “a new job as a highly paid coal industry consultant.” A major friend of Big Coal, Goodell points out, is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, husband of U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. McConnell has benefited from his support of Big Coal, the author notes, and he “left his fingerprints all over his wife’s agency” which oversees MSHA. (Page 62).

Don Blankenship figures in “Big Coal,” as well he should, since the highly visible CEO of Massey Energy has taken a gigantic proactive position in supporting candidates he likes and attacking those he doesn’t. Goodell attended the 2004 Christmas extravaganza sponsored by Massey in Madison, WV, the county seat of Boone County. Massey Energy employs some 800 workers in the area, Goodell notes (Page 21) and Blankenship himself makes an appearance. With compensation of more than $6 million in 2004, the 56-year-old Big Coal executive is “the highest-paid executive not only in the state but in the entire coal industry,” the author says on Page 22. Goodell uses the rest of the chapter – Chapter 2, “Coal Colonies” – to outline Blankenship’s political attacks on WV Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw – which included spending $3.5 million of Blankenship’s own money to unseat McGraw and elect Brent Benjamin (Page 23), as well as his belligerence toward Gov. Joe Manchin’s efforts at public pension reform.

The author minces no words in comparing West Virginia to mineral rich former colonies like the Congo, which in West Virginia – in coal and timber, especially– created great fortunes for people like railroad and coal baron Henry Davis and his son-in-law Stephen Elkins, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and used this power to benefit themselves, much like the Belgians exploited the mineral resources of the Congo. Davis and Elkins and other families became wealthy, but most West Virginians didn’t share in this wealth – even as early as about 100 years ago, Goodell asserts. Once the mining or timbering was done, the largely out-of-state companies went on to other states to exploit them. You get the picture: Goodell is following in the footsteps of the “muckrakers” of the early 20th Century, Ida Tarbell, Lewis Hines and Upton Sinclair, among many others.

While he’s in West Virginia, Goodell, a native of California’s Sillicon Valley who admits he’d never seen a lump of coal until he was 40, visits a woman named Maria Gunnoe, of Bob White, WV, whose life and quiet enjoyment of her property – to use the colorful legal phrase (“The right of an owner or tenant to use a property without disturbance”) – has been disrupted by mountaintop removal and its environmental after-effects. Gunnoe carries a gun in her pickup truck after being threatened by men who told her it’s dangerous for a woman to go walking in her area. In the section dealing with Gunnoe, Goodell refers to groups familiar to readers of Huntington News Network, including Whitesville, WV-based Coal River Mountain Watch and Huntington, WV-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC).

In the Powder River coalfields of Wyoming, Jeff Goodell experiences a different kind of coal mining, strip mining that mostly involves removing the dirt over rich seams of coal – seams that are far thicker than the ones in West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and other eastern coal states. Goodell – in one of my favorite narratives in “Big Coal” – is a ride-along in a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) coal train in the high plains country of northwestern Nebraska. Maybe it appealed to my love of trains – passenger trains, of course, but also freight trains like the CSX coal trains that wind their way through Hinton.

Not so entertaining but vitally important is Goodell’s interview of Charlotte O’Rourke, who moved to Masontown, Pa., with her husband, Donald, in the 1970s and stayed even though it now houses “one of the dirtiest coal plants in America,” Hatfield’s Ferry, run by Allegheny Energy. At 56, Donald O’Rourke was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer and died less than a year later; Charlotte O’Rourke told Goodell – a few months before she was diagnosed with precancerous cells in her esophagus — that “You really don’t have to be a scientist to see what’s going on around here. We live under the plume, and people are sick and people are dying. I mean, how complicated is it, really?”

When I read that part about the her esophagus, it brought me up sharply and I wondered about my friend and former colleague at the Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley, WV, Neale Clark, a native of Fayette County, WV, who died in February 2004 of cancer of the esophagus. Clark was an outstanding newspaperman and a talented actor – he was in John Sayles’ 1987 movie “Matewan,” among other acting gigs. He was a smoker, but he grew up in a coal county, which could have contributed to his cancer.

Largely ignoring “clean coal” technologies – it sounds like an oxymoron, but there is such a thing – such as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), otherwise progressive governors like Rod Blagojevich of Illinois preside over the creation of old-style coal-burning generating plants in coal-rich southern Illinois, Goodell notes (Pages 202-205). The Prairie State power plant near Nashville, Illinois, is pretty much old technology, tricked out with a few new features, the author says. The $1.7 billion plant is being built by another Big Coal company, Peabody Energy (formerly Peabody Coal) headed by another rags to riches executive like Don Blankenship, Pinckneyville, IL native Irl Engelhardt, 53.

IGCC is a power-generating, coal-burning process that produces less waste than old methods and allows power plant operators to capture carbon dioxide before it escapes into the air. Goodell also briefly describes the 1920s German Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) technology that produced motor vehicle fuel and aviation gasoline from coal – which Germany also has in abundance — for the Nazi war machine. It’s still viable and is used in South Africa, which has substantial coal resources. Big Coal doesn’t like IGCC or F-T, Goodell believes. Big Coal just likes to dig black rocks out of the ground – and support political candidates like George Bush and Dick Cheney who go very easy on lax coal mine operations.

Goodell has performed a worthy service with “Big Coal,” a book that goes a long way to explaining people like Don Blankenship and Irl Engelhardt and their dedication to traditional coal mining and power generating.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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