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Coal Power, Meet Water Scarcity

Clinch River endures mining, burning of U.S.’s top electric source

April 22, 2011 |
Circle of Blue

Kalin Wood
  Every day, this coal-fired power plant withdraws over 400 million gallons of water for cooling from the Clinch River, in Virginia.

TAZEWELL, Va.—From its headwaters in Tazewell, the Clinch River winds south through coalfields—feeding mines, preparation facilities, and power plants. It also drains the region’s most polluted tributaries before meeting the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers.

One tributary, Dumps Creek, joins the Clinch near this quiet mountain valley town. Most days, the creek runs opaque and brown; some days it runs orange. In 2003, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality drew attention to the acidity, sedimentation, and high concentration of heavy metals in Dumps Creek, but didn’t name the source. Trace the creek to its headwaters, and the source is evident.

Within Dumps Creek’s 20,000-acre watershed there are two active and two abandoned deep mines. There’s also a scraped-off mountaintop, fully one-fifth of the watershed, where miners blasted away the topsoil and bedrock to get at the coal. Dumps Creek is critical to these operations—it supplies hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily to cool and lubricate mining machinery, wash haul roads and truck wheels to reign in airborne particulates, and to suppress underground dust that otherwise could ignite.

The Start of Coal’s Troubled Path
These production practices are only the first stages of an economically essential and ecologically damaging accord between coal and water. Water is critical to every stage of the mining, processing, shipping, and burning of coal. In the era of climate change, swift population growth, and increasing energy demand, the result is a fierce and complex competition between the two resources that has become much more difficult to resolve.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States withdraws 410 billion gallons of both fresh and saline water a day from its rivers, lakes as well as aquifers. Roughly 85 percent is fresh water. About half is used to cool thermoelectric power plants, and most of that cools coal-powered plants.

The Energy Information Administration, a research unit of the federal Department of Energy, forecasts that by 2050 the demand for energy in the U.S. will be 40 percent higher than it is today. As the nation considers what it will take to cool the planet and serve the country’s steadily increasing energy appetite, federal scientists and policy makers are taking a fresh look at how long the coal era will persist, and by necessity, what its future effect on the country’s water supplies will be.  

Little about what they see is reassuring. (Read complete article.)

(This article republished by permission of Circle of Blue, a news and science organization based in Traverse City, Mich. that covers the global freshwater crisis. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, a writer and photographer in Virginia’s coalfields, is a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. Graphic by Kalin Wood, a Circle of Blue graphic designer. With contribution from Aubrey Ann Parker, a Circle of Blue reporter and data analyst. Reach them at kalin@circleofblue.org and aubrey@circleofblue.org.

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