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West Virginia Chemical Spill Another Black Eye For 'Clean Coal'

If you didn’t know what Crude MCHM was on Thursday,  given the nine-county water crisis unfolding in West Virginia you probably know by now that it’s short for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent that is used to clean coal. The industrial chemical does many other uses, but given its use by the coal industry now is a good time to ask what exactly is meant by “clean coal.”

As reported by the Charleston Gazette, the Crude MCHM spill began some time last Thursday, when a storage tank at the company Freedom Industries began to leak into the nearby Elk River, about a mile and a half upriver from the intakes for West Virginia American Water.

Crude MCHM spill in West Virginia

Coal (cropped) by Eidoloon.

By the time the leak was discovered, the chemical had entered, apparently, the entire service area of the water company. Some had also leached into the ground on its way to the river.

As of this writing the Freedom site is locked down and/or crashed and the water company put a “DO NOT USE WATER” alert box on the top of its site. About 300,000 residents in nine counties have been affected, including some exhibiting symptoms of exposure to Crude MCHM (the alert was later lifted for at least part of one county).

How Bad Is The West Virginia Chemical Spill?

MCHM is basically a poison and until the entire water system is flushed out, the water is unusable for anything except flushing toilets. That means no bathing, no cooking, no cleaning, no laundry, no nothing. In addition to the effect on daily domestic life, consider the impact on hospitals, hotels, and every other business that depends on copious amounts of water (restaurants, laundromats, caterers, barber shops, beauty salons, the list is endless…) and you’ve got a major economic disaster on your hands.

Speaking of hands, the advent of flu season adds another wrinkle. Frequent hand-washing is one of the top strategies for preventing spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control reports that flu cases are on the uptick and are widespread in many states. As of last week West Virginia was one of the few states not yet reporting widespread flu, but that could change with the spill’s impact on access to safe water for frequent washing.

What’s All This About Clean Coal?

Let’s note again that Crude MCHM is a fairly common industrial chemical in general use by the mining sector, not just coal.

However, the coal connection knocks yet another pin out from under the “clean coal” image that the industry has been trying so hard to prop up.

When you only apply “clean” to carbon emissions at the burn point, you could make the case that next-generation coal-burning technology makes coal a cleaner fuel.

However, that leaves not just one but a whole group of 800-pound gorillas in the room: the practice of blowing up entire mountains and filling in streams known as mountaintop coal mining, destructive subsidence from underground mines, mine fires, contaminated mine drainage, air pollution impacts from rail transportation, and the widespread practice of storing fly ash from coal power plants in open lagoons (they break, for one thing).

The practice of using toxic chemicals to prep mined coal hadn’t crossed our radar before the West Virginia disaster, but it looks like we’ll have to add that to the list, too.

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Content Discussion

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on January 17, 2014

The chemical in question has nothing to do with clean coal in terms of electricity generation. MCHM is a frothing agent used to separate out inorganics and impurities from anthracitic coal intended for steel manufacturing. Coal for electricity doesn’t need this step – after crushing it’s shipped to the power plants to get burned. The mined coal in question is crushed and processed with MCHM and then transported to the steel mills, where it is added to the manufacturing of carbon steel. It’s an essential step in the process. Running a raw materials supply business like a third world metals scrapper is not good business. In 21st century America, one would hope.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 19, 2014

Thanks for your clarification, Michael.

While MCHM has no direct connection to burning coal for energy, this incident is another reminder that consumption of any form – whether it’s steel, or fertilizer, or plastic grocery bags – involves manufacture. That manufacture comes with not only  its own requisite supply of energy, but its own supply of raw materials, some of which are hazardous.

Without carbon steel there would be no wind turbine blades, no solar panels, and no nuclear reactor containment vessels. By using raw materials most efficiently, we can minimize the impacts of manufacture on the environment.

Tina Casey's picture
Tina Casey on January 19, 2014

Michael, thanks for putting the steel industry on our radar. While we tend to bracket coal into electricity generating sector, the fallacy of “clean coal” also applies to industrial uses. Here’s a helpful rundown of emissions from the iron and steel industries from US EPA: http://www.epa.gov/nsr/ghgdocs/ironsteel.pdf.

Tina Casey's picture
Tina Casey on January 19, 2014

Michael, thanks for putting the steel industry on our radar. While we tend to bracket coal into electricity generating sector, the fallacy of “clean coal” also applies to industrial uses. Here’s a helpful rundown of emissions from the iron and steel industries from US EPA: http://www.epa.gov/nsr/ghgdocs/ironsteel.pdf.

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