This weekend there is a new reminder of how toxic coal can be. A coal-processing disaster has a quarter of West Virginia worried about the water supply, as the water is temporarily too toxic to touch. The chemical in question is used every day to produce what is euphemistically known as “clean coal.” As coal is cleaned, the chemicals and contaminants are simply left behind in the mountains, where it hoped they will stabilize before they do too much harm. That depends, of course, on containment, and in an industry that is no longer cost-competitive with solar for electric generation, the money for reliable containment just isn’t there. As the cost of solar declines, the financial pressure on coal increases, so that we can expect this kind of large-scale coal disaster to recur on a yearly basis, in spite of talk about the need to improve. As spills occur, most of the costs are borne by the public, and the costs may occasionally be partly remediated by government. It is a perverse and roundabout way of subsidizing coal-generated electricity.
Update, January 17: To underscore the marginal financial condition of the coal business, the coal-washing chemical factory at the center of the latest disaster filed for bankruptcy today, saying it is unable to pay its operating expenses. Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy reorganization under Chapter 11, but it is hard to imagine how it can escape liquidation.