by Dylan Voorhees, NRCM Clean Energy project director
I am here today to announce the decision by the Natural Resources Council of Maine to oppose the coal gasification facility proposed by Point East for the town of Wiscasset. NRCM has many members in Wiscasset and the surrounding towns. They and many others asked us to examine this proposal closely. We have concluded that this massive coal plant, if built, would result in a giant step backward for Maine’s environment and our way of life. It would result in increased mercury pollution and global warming pollution, and despite claims that it would be a “clean” operation, a complete analysis shows that the use of coal at a facility like this would be anything but clean.
100 years ago, there was an active debate about the health effects of mercury. Today, that debate is long over. We know that mercury damages the central nervous system, kidneys, and other organs. Mercury and its compounds are particularly toxic to fetuses and infants. Mercury exposure in young children can have severe neurological consequences, preventing their brains from developing properly.
For several years, NRCM and others have been working to keep mercury out of our environment and our children. We’re getting rid of thermostats, thermometers and electronics. We’re doing more to recycle compact fluorescent light bulbs, which have the tiniest amount of mercury. We’re fighting the federal government’s weak mercury laws. With all this effort, why would we move backward by building a giant coal plant with more mercury emissions than any other source in the state?
When you are dealing with more than 10 million pounds of coal a day, you can’t change the fact that the mercury emissions would be real threat to Maine. No amount of gasification or pollution scrubbers can change that.
Everyone knows that we’re also engaged in a global effort to reduce global warming. Maine and New England have made commitments to dramatically reduce our global warming pollution. We’ve passed tailpipe emission standards for new cars. We’ve adopted a mandatory cap on carbon emissions from power plants. We’re moving forward to build significant amounts of wind power. We’re supporting research on advanced biomass and biofuel facilities. With all these efforts, why would we move backward by building a giant coal plant that could double the global warming pollution from Maine’s power sector?
The developer has made grandiose claims about this plant, but the bottom line is clear: a coal gasification plant is no better for global warming than any old coal plant when it comes to global warming pollution. That’s the conclusion of the best academic work in the country, even by those who think we should be developing new coal-based technology—most recently in a major study by MIT. The U.S. Department of Energy and many others have a similarly clear assessment of the “liquid-coal” diesel this plant would produce: this fuel produces more global warming pollution than any other fuel, even traditional diesel.
The developer has said that they will “prove the experts wrong.” Are Wiscasset and Maine willing to gamble that all these studies are wrong and Point East is right? Are we willing to gamble the health of our environment and our children?
There is no such thing as clean coal. It is the dirtiest possible fuel. Scrub away at it as much as you can and it is still a danger to our health and our environment.
It is important for realize that before any coal was gasified in Maine, it would be mined somewhere else – which is anything but a “clean” process. For traditional mining, that means black lung disease for miners and costly treatment for acid mine drainage. Or it means mountaintop removal: destroying forests, mountain communities, groundwater, streams and unknown long-term effects to ecosystems.
The federal government reports that over 800,000 acres of land in Appalachia have been destroyed or degraded by mountaintop removal mining as of 2005. Some 1,200 miles of streams were filled-in between 1992 and 2002. That’s a mile of stream completely filled in every three days.
Next, you have to wash the coal. That means huge slurry “ponds,” with their toxic stew of heavy metals and coal cleaning chemicals. One such “pond” broke through in October and released 250 million gallons of sludge, creating the worst-ever waste spill, for which cleanup is ongoing and costs are rising. That is irreversible damage.
Then, you have to transport the coal to power plants. Not only does that mean more air pollution on-route, for Wiscasset it means coal barges that could cripple the local lobster and shellfish industries.
Finally, you have to dispose of the ash and slag. There are no federally enforceable rules for disposing of this coal ash. Proven methods of storage are hard to come by. Coal ash has caused groundwater contamination elsewhere. The developer says they can get rid of the ash safely and cleanly. Again, we’re being asked to trust them. That’s not good enough for Maine.
Coal gasification may make sense in the future, or at locations where sequestering the carbon underground is feasible, but Maine is not such a place, and Wiscasset is not such a place.
There are far better ways to meet our energy needs than this plant. Energy efficiency and conservation are proven ways to reduce environmental impacts, and avoid the need for more and more power plants. Maine can save millions of dollars every year and dramatically reduce pollution if we seize opportunities to invest in energy efficiency.
Wind power is a truly clean, affordable source of power. We could have 700 MW of wind power in Maine by the time this plant could get off the ground. We know Maine has great potential to use solar power, tidal power, biomass and biofuels.
This plant is totally inconsistent with the direction Maine is headed. The developer is not proposing to use this technology to combat global warming. They can’t possibly clean all of the toxics out of the coal. And we’re not prepared to stand by while they ask Virginia and Kentucky to destroy their environment for our power while we continue to waste energy across the state. Maine is beginning to show real leadership in the efforts to address global warming, reduce toxics like mercury, increase energy efficiency and boost renewable energy. This plant would be a black mark on that record.