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How clean Is Clean Coal?

In a single year, less than one in 100,000 Americans contract a rare form of blood cancer. In Pennsylvania coal country, the rate is nearly five times higher. Many suspect "clean" coal is the cause. As the 2008 presidential candidates promote the potential of clean coal as an alternative fuel source, and as Congress prepares to debate energy legislation, American News Project takes a look at the controversial practice of coal-ash dumping.


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Story Transcript


How Clean Is Clean Coal?

By Davin Hutchins

TEXT ON SCREEN: Fewer than one in 100,000 Americans a year contract polycythemia vera – a rare bone marrow cancer. In three eastern Pennsylvania counties, the rate is at least four and a half times higher.

SUEMEDHA SOOD, THE WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT: I’ve been doing this story for The Washington Independent. I cover the environment for The Independent. And when I was talking to scientists and residents in this area, and that’s when I started hearing about disease clusters being linked to coal-ash dumping, or a suspected link between contaminated water and disease clusters. And that’s when I heard about polycythemia vera, which is an extremely rare form of bone marrow cancer.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Betty Kester contracted polycythemia vera one year after [her] husband.

BETTY KESTER: Well, I take chemo pills every day. And my husband took chemo till 2000, and he was diagnosed with polycythemia. A year later, I was diagnosed with it. We both had bone marrow tests, and it was proven that we actually have it. And from then on we started to go down hill. We’ve just been suffering. Tired, you’re very tired. You’re very itchy. And I was very sick, but I’m fighting, I’m trying to get well. But he didn’t survive.


TEXT ON SCREEN: Coaldale, Pennsylvania, just south of Tamaqua.

SOOD: What’s the probability of a husband and wife both getting this disease?

DR. PAUL RODA, ONCOLOGIST/HEMATOLOGIST: It’s very improbable to see two unrelated people in a household both come down with an extremely rare blood disease. The number of patients I’m seeing with p. vera has been elevated since I first came to this area 26 years ago. In addition to the Kesters, there were two other people living within a half-mile or so of them on ["den-TY-tus"] Row.

SOOD: And how many patients do you and the other doctors at your practice treat polycythemia vera?

RODA: We would estimate that we’re treating about 60 patients. It’s a bone marrow malignancy similar but not identical to chronic leukemia, where the bone marrow is out of control and making more cells than it needs to make.

SOOD: What’s the likelihood that environmental factors could be at play here?

RODA: Well, I’m not an epidemiologist. My training is in medicine. But if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, I have to think that I’m going to make duck soup out of it when I finally get it.

TEXT ON SCREEN: A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control concluded that p. vera in Pennsylvania is linked to environmental factors.


Northeastern Power Company — McAdoo, PA

TEXT ON SCREEN: Many suspect the P-Vera outbreak could be caused in part by pollution from coal ash.

INTERVIEWER (MALE): What does the community think the cause is? What do people talk about?

KESTER: Them chemicals coming into our well. It was tested three times.

INTERVIEWER (FEMALE): And what was found in there?

KESTER: All kinds of junk.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Both Betty’s well and a nearby reservoir were found to be contaminated with heavy metals also found in coal ash. Fish with tumors have been caught in this reservoir.


Mahanoy City – 6 miles west of Tamaqua

SOOD: Usually when we think about coal, we think about air pollution. But when coal is burned it generates a solid waste, which is coal ash. And coal ash usually contains arsenic, mercury, lead, you know, aluminum, all sorts of heavy metals that can be dangerous.

Leading politicians promote the idea of burning coal with fewer emissions.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (D): I have a aggressive goal of reducing carbon emissions, and coal is a dirty fuel. But if we can figure out how to sequester carbon and burn clean coal, we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, US PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (R): I’m confident with technology and with widespread use and the innovation of America, we can have clean-coal technology.


DANTE PICCIANO, GENETICIST AND LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: Clean-coal technology says if we put it up through the smoke stacks and we reduce the air emissions, it’s clean-coal technology. Well, that’s hogwash, because you’re not destroying the contaminants; you’re just concentrating them into fly ash. So the cleaner the air emissions, the dirtier the fly ash or more contaminated the fly ash.

ADVERTISEMENT: We’re committed to a future in which our most abundant fuel, coal—.

PICCIANO: And they have commercials on TV constantly telling us how clean their dirt is.

ADVERTISEMENT: We’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.

PICCIANO: It defies logic, and yet they have the money to run these ads over and over and trying to indoctrinate people into believing that there is such a thing as clean coal when it doesn’t exist.

ADVERTISEMENT: Preserve it for your children.

PICCIANO: You know, we had at least a fivefold increase in rare cancer. Do you think that would set off public health alarms? That’s still not enough to bring in the necessary people to conduct the studies and find the cause of this problem.

ADVERTISEMENT: And one day, perhaps we shall all be brothers.


TEXT ON SCREEN: The Washington Independent and ANP contacted the power companies and the EPA.

SOOD: We talked to the coal plants in eastern Pennsylvania, we talked to Northeastern Power, and they said that they were under the impression that the EPA had ruled out a link between cancer and coal-ash dumping, which research shows that there can be a risk.

TEXT ON SCREEN: In 2007, the EPA acknowledged a one in 100 cancer risk for people drinking water contaminated by metals from coal combustion wastes. But the EPA has yet to classify coal ash as a hazardous substance.

KESTER: There’s something wrong here, wrong, wrong, wrong. And my husband died for this.

TEXT ON SCREEN: The dumping of coal ash is entirely unregulated. There are currently plans to build 150 new power plants powered by "clean coal" by 2030.

Produced by

Davin Hutchins, Suemedha Sood


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy