Costs and Benefits Of Coal Discussed

Panel members during a coal forum may have disagreed about how much coal is left to mine in West Virginia, but one thing was agreed upon – coal won’t last forever.

The forum, titled “the costs and benefits of coal,” was held Wednesday at Wheeling Jesuit University. Panel members included Ben Stout, WJU biology professor; Chris Hamilton, West Virginia Coal Association senior vice president and Mountaintop Mining Coalition co-chairman; and the Rev. Dennis Sparks, a West Virginia Council of Churches director.

The trio answered questions collected by the school’s Freshman Year Experience team. Stout and Sparks noted in southern West Virginia, where mountaintop mining is more prevalent, people are most concerned about contamination of their drinking water.

Sparks noted he realizes coal makes the electricity that powers his computer and lights, but the health costs alone are dangerous. Stout pointed out coal slurry, which is the water that remains from washing coal, often contains heavy metals such as cadmium and barium.

“In two of our counties in the coalfields of West Virginia, studies have shown women in those two counties have life expectancies 10 years less than women across America. And those life expectancies are the lowest among women in the country,” Sparks said. ”We’re paying a huge price. … We have a moral imperative to look at those costs of coal.”

Hamilton noted there are regulations in place that forbid companies from allowing coal slurry to contaminate people’s groundwater.

He acknowledged contamination does occasionally occur. Many residents, he added, do not have public water, but instead use water wells. West Virginia needs to invest in its public water infrastructure to eliminate the need for wells, he said.

“Get adequate drinking water and sewage facilities to all rural areas of the state. We have a surplus of funding today mainly because of coal production and energy production in the state of West Virginia. Instead of buying that second deputy patrol car or some other questionable expenditure, it’s time that every bit of that surplus gets dedicated to fund the infrastructure needs,” Hamilton said.

Stout said he believes there is only 20 to 30 years of coal left to mine, while Hamilton estimated there is 150 years worth remaining to mine in West Virginia. While the trio agreed alternative forms of energy eventually will be necessary to power the nation, Hamilton said the United States needs now to pay attention to where its coal comes from. For example, he said, some coal is imported from foreign countries that have little to no environmental regulations and also use child labor.