Friday, March 27, 2009

I knew King Coal

As did many Americans my age or older, I had a personal relationship with coal. In 1951, the year before I was born, coal peaked as the primary energy source for homes and businesses. Over 50% used coal for either boilers or forced air heat. The elementary schools I attended had coal-fired boilers for heat, and many of my friends lived in houses with coal furnaces. Until I entered junior high, so did I.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1970, the use of coal for heating homes and businesses had fallen to single digits. It’s used in less than two-tenths of a percent of homes today, but making a bit of a comeback as oil prices rise.

Living with a coal furnace required more than a turn of a thermostat to keep things warm in the winter. Although modernized in several ways, it was still an physically interactive experience.

Rather than throwing shovels of coal into the fiery maw of a furnace, coal was shoveled into a hopper box a few feet away. At the bottom of the hopper was an auger, a screw-like mechanism turned by an electric motor to grind the coal into smaller, more efficiently burnable pieces and move them into the fire box. The most sophisticated systems had sensors that fed as needed, others required a human to start and stop the motor.

At some point it became my daily chore in winter to check the hopper before going to school and when I got home and top it off if it needed more coal to keep the fire burning. Depending on what was available and the quality we could afford it might be hard, glittering, black anthracite I shoveled, soft, layered, dark bituminous or crumbly, dull, brown lignite. The harder and blacker the coal the longer and hotter it burned because it higher carbon and lower water content so the fewer shovelfuls had to be loaded into the hopper. So instead of ten minutes of indentured servitude loading lignite or lower grade bituminous I could be done in 5 with anthracite.

It also became my chore to clear the burnt cinder or clinkers from the clinker box under the furnace. I had a long handled iron rod with a 90 degree bend at the end that I used to coax the still warm clinkers into a bucket, then I’d have to drag the bucket out of the basement and dump it on the clinker pile in the back yard. If it was cold and we were burning lots of coal, I’d have to make more than one trip. Every spring my Dad would have to figure out what to do with the clinker pile. I’m not sure where it got rid of it.

On a massive scale, the generation of electricity and manufacturing have to deal with the same issues we dealt with in the basement of my house. The coal is poured into a hopper and ground, often into a fine dust for more even burning. After the energy is extracted in burning, there is slag. And after a while your backyard pile gets too big and you have to do something with it. But before we get to that part, I’m going to spend some time looking at how coal gets out of the ground.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Not the battle they want to fight

This afternoon I received an e-mail blast forwarding a press release from Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Burns Strider, who I worked with briefly when I was organizing veterans for Hillary Clinton. It announced that the Obama administration was not going to proceed with the proposal to force veterans with combat-related injuries to use their private insurance for treatment. You can read the full news release with this link:

Burns has worked for Speaker Peolsi as a Senior Advisor in the past, but I'm not sure what his current official relationship is now that he has his own firm.

The fact that I received the e-mail means that the opposition from veterans and their families from one end of the political spectrum to the other was loud enough and fierce enough that they're going way down the food chain to let anyone with any veteran contacts know that they made a mistake and they'll find another way to save money.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

That wasn't what you told us when we signed up

During the 2008 election I was honored to serve as one of the two California Co-Chairs for Veterans for Obama. I believed then and I believe now that Barack Obama was and is the best choice to be President and Commander-in-Chief. But I am deeply disturbed at the recently announced policy proposal to have treatment for service-connected injuries charged to veterans' private insurance plans in order to save the VA money.

Not only does this break covenant between the country and those who offered their lives in service, but it puts at risk the insurability of veterans with service connected injuries and their families. Even if the injuries are excluded as pre-existing conditions, long term treatment of serious injuries would exhaust annual and even lifetime benefit limits on nearly all private policies.

If the injuries are service connected it is not the responsibility of the former service members, their families, their employers and their insurance companies to provide treatment. It is the responsibility of the people and their government who sent them into harm’s way.

Monday, March 16, 2009

And after the coal is burned you have...sludge

I'm going to spend some time later writing about the impact of coal mining and use on local eco-systems, but this wire service report encapsulates what happens with the stuff that doesn't go up the chimney.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's just a lump of coal

The last couple of weeks I’ve found myself thinking about coal. What started it was the case from West Virginia before the U.S. Supreme Court. Two West Virginia coal companies were suing each other and when the Massey Coal CEO thought he was about to lose, he set about to buy a West Virginia Supreme Court judge to make sure he won. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether he bought him legally.

That reminded me that Massey Coal is one of the most notorious mountain top removers in the Appalachians. And all that thinking got me to doing some research. The more I read the more intrigued I became. Coal was central to American industrialization, labor history, transportation development, and urbanization. It is inextricably linked to the culture of rural Appalachia and over a billion tons a year continues to be mined in the United States. But the cost, both to produce it and to the environment continues to rise. There’s a lot of thinking to be done about coal, and I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts with you over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

China's arrogance and the use of the seven seas

In the crowding of the USNS Impeccable by Chinese Trawlers and Naval vessels; one is reminded of both the USS Liberty and it's sister ship the USS Pueblo. It is actually more reminiscent of the Liberty, which was in International Waters when fired upon, and US Sailers murdered by the Israeli Air Force immediately before the six days war.

"China's territorial claims are sharpened still more by Beijing's interpretation of the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China sees the convention as giving it the right to ban a broad range of activities within its exclusive economic zone. That grates against the U.S. position that the Navy ships were in international waters and therefore have the right to conduct surveying."

Please tell me what economic interest is being curtailed by a US Naval ship which is unarmed and listening in open and free waters to military transmissions by a growing military threat of the Chinese Navy. This is a violation of centuries of naval tradition and international law. We must not allow this super power to become the largest pirate nation in the world.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Don't do as we do; do as we say!

Let's take a step back and look at nuclear nonproliferation as it appears to a large part of the rest of the world. We don't want Iran, North Korea or have a missed a country or two; to have tactical or strategic weapons of mass destruction. So how have we treated the new additions to the Nuclear Club in the past decades.

Let's see. Pakistan was never a close ally until they got the bomb. India was throughout the Cold War a client state of the USSR even though they were a parliamentary democracy. Israel, who everyone knows, got the bomb by the backdoor from us; is never officially recognized as a member of the club.

Now India and Pakistan are allies, in the case of India, a corporate client state for outsourcing; and they are being promoted into the World Trade circles along with other world decision making bodies.

Why in God's green earth wouldn't any nation want a bit of Uranium, Plutonium, and a breeder reactor if it gets you an invite to the table where world class showdown diplomatic poker is being dealt.

We have to actually mean what we say by doing it as well. We have to demonstrate, as the nation with the biggest cache of sub launched, plane dropped and missile delivered bombs as well as MRV
warheads, a true commitment to non proliferation and reduction of weapons. We also have to stop any foolishness as the former administration did in claiming we needed a nuclear bunker busting weapon. How many damn bunkers are we planning to bust that we need a new weapon system. We already have multiple Armageddon ready numbers to end life on this planet.

Has anyone looked at the Nuclear Clock lately to see how we are doing? No Nuke, now more so than ever before.