Coal as ‘Savior’? Sins of Omission Cloud the Story of Big Brown’s Town

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“Dread,” read the headline about the East Texas coal belt and proposed federal climate regulations. Finally, I thought. Finally an appropriate response from the coal industry.

Obama insists new climate regs are finally coming to the nation’s coal plants. Cue up the rows of tiny violins and pass out the black armbands. No, wait, the Dallas Morning News already did that for you.

The recent offering captures what one federal response to our industrially destabilized climate means to a single small town. There’s a “Goodbye to a River” poignancy ladled over with affection as the author describes the “Rockwellian” town of Fairfield. It’s an idyllic town, the article insists, only made possible by one monstrously polluting its “savior” of a coal plant, Big Brown Steam Electric Station.

Yeah, dude said “savior.” About coal.

Consider the article as a case study in why business and energy writers should be required to get continuing ed classes in climate science and public health.

clean air task force

There’s a lot of policy gargle in the wash here (why the federal legislation will take longer than we think, for instance), but an early and egregious error is in the writer’s decision to follow decades of false-flag waving by actually blaming environmentalists for coal’s current ill favor.

Already facing stiff competition from the flood of cheap natural gas into the marketplace and derided by environmentalists for its heavy emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, coal power has seen it fortunes decline in recent years.

Then there are a string of serious omissions that can’t even be justified by the story’s devotedly “slice of life” soft-feature focus.

What you won’t read in this otherwise entertaining visit to Fairfield:

Damn the climate science: While policy points are batted about loosely, the only climate science that finds its way into the piece, if you can call it science, is courtesy of a feed and fertilizer business owner who “believes the jury is still out on mankind’s impact on climate change — one facet of which involves something he read about Iceland’s glaciers developing and retracting eons ago.”

At this point the author was obligated to offer a counter proposal. Say, from NASA? (Honestly, he could pick any federal agency or scientific body on the planet and get the same basic chemistry lesson.) Didn’t happen. But let’s pretend.

Once the non-flatness of the earth was re-established, the writer could also perhaps inform the reader that coal power is the subject of interest in the White House because it accounts a full four-fifths of the utility sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, now blanketing the planet at 400 parts per million and delivering a more volatile present while rushing us deeper into an extremely tenuous future.

An interesting side note would have been to add that it has been at least 800,000 years since CO2 concentrations were this high on the planet. That it’s been millions of years longer than that since those levels were sustained over a significant length of time — higher concentrations linked to temps that were 5 to 10 degrees hotter on average and seas that were as much as 120 feet higher than today.

Overlook the mercury emissions: Tied to developmental damages in children, the 1,362 pounds of mercury released from Big Brown in 2009 rank that plant second highest in the nation for known neurotoxic pollution. (Source: 2011 Environmental Defense Fund report)

Really, damn the climate science — if you’re at least willing to talk about what people are breathing. No such luck.

Ignore the estimated 44 premature deaths:  And the 66 heart attacks. And the 810 asthma attacks — all according to a 2010 report (pdf) prepared by Abt Associates for the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force.

Rather than taking the cheap and incorrect position that coal is only resisted by environmentalists, the writer should ring up a few doctors or school nurses. In fact, coal power is a certified public-health nightmare the bill for which the Harvard School of Public Health figures could surpass half a trillion dollars per year.

Now there’s a figure any business writer should be salivating to sink their teeth into.

It’s an interesting story that could have been easily saved by simply including a few lines of appropriate science. As is, the DMN could have — and should have — offered more.

At the end of the day, it should be noted, not every town deserves to be a town. If existence means topping the nation in the production of toxins the pollute our children’s minds and gases that are picking apart the planet’s very life-support system, Fairfield sounds like a case for letting go.

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