Sun | Mar 18, 2018

Glenn Tucker | The hard coal facts

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Glenn Tucker
The Alpart plant in Nain, St Elizabeth, has been sold for US$300m to a Chinese company.
In this October 6, 2015 photo, Scottie Stinson works in an underground coal mine roughly 40 inches high in Welch, West Virginia. News that the Chinese are to build a coal plant in Jamaica has sparked outrage from environmentalists.

There is a dark, sooty cloud of controversy hovering over the reopening of the Alpart bauxite plant at Nain. It seems to stem from the fact that the new owners, a Chinese company, plan to use coal-fired processing to generate the energy needed by the plant.

From the Chinese point of view, this is understandable. Coal is the cheapest form of energy, estimated at about one-sixth the cost of oil or natural gas. But it is also the dirtiest. And therein lies the problem - for us.

All the plants around us receive and store energy from the sun. It is stored through a process known as photosynthesis. This energy is usually released when the plant dies and starts to decay. In cases, however, when the decaying process cannot take place, like when it is buried deep in the earth, it is subjected to great pressure and high temperatures. The energy that would normally be released is locked into the decaying plant material which, after millions of years, becomes coal.

China is the world's largest producer and consumer of coal. Coal played a significant role in that country's industrialisation. It allowed China to record growth in excess of 10 per cent for more than a decade. But this has come at an enormous cost in health and environmental problems. In 2011, more than 250,000 premature deaths in that country were attributable to emissions from coal plants. In some cities like Shanghai, measuring instruments for pollution were inadequate to measure the levels of pollution.

Today, schools frequently close, and flights are sometimes cancelled. Retailers of air purifiers and face masks are unable to keep up with the demand for these products. In some cities, visibility is reduced to less than 50 metres. Some 320,000 children and 61,000 adults were suffering from asthma; 36,000 babies were born with low weight. There were 340,000 hospital visits and 141 million (work)days of sick leave in 2011. All of these events are attributable to the dangerous chemicals released during coal burning.

Some of the complaints include asthma, lung disease and cancer, abnormal lung development in children, blocked arteries, tissue death, heart damage, loss of intellectual capacity, and nervous problems.

International condemnation, health statistics, and growing social unrest have finally caught the attention of the Chinese authorities. This has resulted in economic reforms, greater transparency, and efforts to promote renewable energy.




According to the environmental group Greenpeace, global use of coal fell 2.3 per cent to 4.6 per cent in the first nine months of 2015 from the same period in 2014. Imagine a reduction of 180 million tons of coal during the period in question. This would go a far way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for heating up the planet. Scientists say we need to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius or the world will experience 'catastrophic climate change'. If this is to be avoided, they say, emissions from coal have to fall four per cent annually through the year 2040.

Since the end of 2013, China's electricity consumption growth has mainly been covered by new renewable energy plants. Today, one coal-fired power plant goes idle every week in that country.

The question I keep asking myself is, why would a country that has witnessed the danger and devastation of coal production and use, first hand, be willing to inflict these on a potential partner? The thinking I am hearing locally from the informed minority is that this would be a bad idea. The other louder voices say we 'need the investment'.

This coal is intended to help in the production of bauxite and aluminium. My calculations tell me that the available alternative - oil - would make the alumina-to-aluminium phase, especially, very expensive. So what are the alternatives?

Bauxite is a major contributor to the national purse. That said, it cannot be overlooked that environmentalists claim that the bauxite mining industry in Jamaica is having a devastating impact on the environment and surrounding ecosystems. They further claim that it is presenting serious health problems for local communities. Even the sludge contains heavy metals and other pollutants.

A land-use and forest-cover study conducted 15 years ago to determine the rate of deforestation revealed that bauxite mining is the single largest contributor to deforestation in Jamaica. Fifty years of operation had stripped 5,099 hectares of land of trees, including some 3,218 hectares of forest. Watershed-management maps show significant degradation of forests and watershed in many areas in the parishes of Trelawny and St Ann in the north and St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon, and St Catherine in the south. St Ann and Manchester are the parishes that are most affected.

There is a duppy story making the rounds about 'clean coal'. Those who hold this view point to the fact that since 1970, emissions from coal power plants are down by 35 per cent, the air is cleaner, and yet coal production has tripled during that period. Well, yes, the emissions are down 35 per cent since 1970. The claim that the air is cleaner is valid only from a 1970 perspective when the guidelines of the Clean Air Act of that time are used.




They claim that there is more mercury from 'natural sources' in the soil than the coal industry releases. Yes, yes, yes! But that mercury remains where it is. The most reassuring story we can get from the clean-coal lobby is that we can capture the carbon emissions from coal and bury them underground. Well, the scientists at Shell don't see this technology gaining widespread use before 2050.

The favourite - and usually successful - argument used on host countries is that the coal industry 'creates jobs'. Figures show, however, that employment in this area is declining rapidly.

If this has not already been done, it would be a good idea for the authorities to establish that certain minimum standards be set based on Maximum achievable control technology for hazardous air-pollution emissions from electrical generation. Potential investors will then know in advance what is acceptable here. We need to move full speed ahead in developing the capacity to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources.

The residents around Nain have been absorbing the unhealthy by-products of the bauxite industry for decades. If this technology is to be adopted, research must begin immediately to determine the combinative effects of coal and bauxite emissions on the health of these residents.

Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace coal and energy campaigner, claims that "coal is in terminal decline, and those countries investing in coal for export markets are making reckless decisions".

Whatever the authorities decide, they should never lose sight of the fact that coal will never be clean.

- Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. He can be reached at