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1952 London smog
The great killer smog of December 1952 obscures the streets of central London. Officially it caused the premature death of some 4,000 inhabitants, but this may only be half the actual number. Source

Coal: A Human History

Part one of our interview with author and former-Minnesota assistant attorney general, Barbara Freese

By Bill Moore

Barbara Freese's journey through the human history of coal began when lobbyists for the coal industry tried to convince officials of the state of Minnesota, for which she was then an assistant attorney general, that burning coal to produce power wasn't really responsible for global warming, and even if global warming was happening, it would be a good thing for a state known for its long, cold winters.

Freese's journey would take her from the wind-swept plains of Minnesota to the far west of China in pursuit of the untold human history of a substance ancient Romans once shaped and polished into jewelry: coal.

"It was coal that came first. It was our society's first fossil fuel," she replies when asked why this often-denigrated, but heavily-replied-upon energy source played such a pivotal role in the development of our modern industrial culture.

"It was coal that took us across that very important threshold from the agricultural world and lifestyle and pace into the industrial one. And it really took coal to establish a technological basis that we needed to later exploit oil and natural gas."

As Freese explains in both her book, "Coal: A Human History" and in our interview, coal not only became the fuel that powered the industrial revolution, but more importantly, it triggered a series of inventions that would spark that revolution, starting in Britain, which had an abundance of coal. By the mid-to-late 1700's, the island was running out of trees with which to construct its navy and heat its hearths.
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Local British communities with nearby coal seams had been using it off and on for centuries -- as had the Chinese -- but by the reign of King George III and the American Revolution, most of the easily extractable deposits had been mined and the deep deposits were increasingly prone to ground water flooding. Various methods were used to remove the water, but the deeper the mines sank, the less effective those strategies became.

It was the invention and eventual refinement of the steam engine that solved the problem of not only keeping the deep mines dry, but also provided the technology to move the coal from the mine face to distant customers, both industrial and residential. The very first railway was built to haul coal twenty-six miles from the mining town of Darlington to the river town of Stockton where it would be shipped down the coast to London or by canal to the developing cities of the industrial Midlands.

The Cost of Burning Coal
In the mid-1990s, when Freese was serving as a front line attorney for Minnesota's pollution control agency, the state was attempting to quantify -- in dollars and cents -- the environmental cost of making electricity.

"Since most of our electricity comes from coal, we focused on [it]."

The study looked at the air quality costs associated with burning coal, including the costs of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide, one of the leading contributors to global warming, although coal industry lobbyists would contest that conclusion in state hearings.

"It suddenly dawned to me that this substance, which is largely invisible in modern life because nobody burns it in their home anymore; we don't see the railways burning it; was still having a tremendous influence on the environment and on policy and most people didn't know anything about it."

China would also play a large part in Freese's research, not only because two-thirds of its power is derived from coal -- the largest percentage of any developed or developing nation -- but also because it has the longest history of coal use of any culture, dating back thousands of years.

"Of course, they've got this enormous population, a fast growing economy, and they've got great plans to burn more coal," she said. "There is both a tremendous past and a tremendous future for coal in that country. And the conditions are so different, both in terms of the mining of that coal and the burning of it, so I decided I really needed to go there."

As she recounts in her book, she got far more access than she ever imagined she would get, though not without some risk. She noted that despite her critical view of the coal industry in China, her book is being translated into Chinese for sale inside the country, adding that she does take a somewhat sympathetic view of China as a developing country.

From Priceless Jewelry to Smokey Hells
Freese's book is a unique blending of history and environmental science, tracing the relationship between various ancient cultures and coal down to modern times as America began the transition from a biomass-based culture dependent on its vast, seemingly unending tracts of virgin forest, to increasing reliance on coal in the latter half of the 19th century into the 21st century. Even now, fifty percent of the nation's electric power is still generated by the burning of soft or bituminous coal.

Ironically, it would be coal -- the "hard" or anthracite variety mined primarily in eastern Pennsylvania -- that would transform the large eastern seaboard cities into metropolises known for their "clean air."

"New York City was know for its pure atmosphere" Freeze said. "Baltimore, Boston, cities like that, were very lucky that they could burn clean coal. Philadelphia. Those cities further west had to burn softer coal, the kind of coal you see around Pittsburgh, Appalachia and further south. Those were the cities that have been known for their very bad smoke. Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, the industrial cities along the Ohio River valley, down to Birmingham (Alabama). They were far more polluted because they were burning a different kind of coal."

The story of Pittsburgh's relationship to coal occupies a particularly interesting part of the book. As Freese relates it, shortly after the British capture of the tiny frontier outpost known as the "Forks" during the French and Indian War, settlers opened the very first coal mine across the river from the fort.

"By 1790 when this is still just a tiny little outpost on the wild west frontier with fewer than four hundred residents, you already have people talking about the smoke and the grit, and it just went on from there."

A telling photograph in the book was taken about 3:00 pm in Pittsburgh in 1913. The air pollution is so bad that the street lights have been turned on and it looks like midnight. Freese noted that visitors from London, which had its own coal-fired air pollution problems commented on how bad Pittsburgh was.

One of the very first female activist organizations grew out of this coal-burning malaise. Middle-class housewives as early as the late 18th century began to organize "municipal housekeeping movements" to encourage people to burn coal in more efficient ways.

"They passed ordinances in various cities even before they had the vote," she explained.

By the middle of the 20th century, coal ceased to be burned in homes and on the railway. As a result, cities like Pittsburgh became vastly cleaner or at least they seem that way, in part because coal is burned more efficiently and in a different manner than 100 years ago.

Today, modern pollution control technology removes much of the particulates, but it also disperses the remaining contaminates over a far wider area. Freese pointed out that in earlier times, coal pollution was a local phenomenon. "It was very much an urban problem."

Now mandatory tall smoke stacks cause the pollution to be distributed more. This is how mercury from power plants in Ohio can still contaminate lakes in New England. It would be the Clean Air Act of 1970 that sought to force power companies to clean up their act, inciting a thirty year war of wills that continues to be waged, sadly now from inside the government.

PART TWO CONTINUED NEXT WEEK....

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Times Article Viewed: 18492
Published: 31-Jan-2004

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