Thursday, July 14, 2011

It’s a gas, gas, gas: Chicago to get coal gasification plant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the eco-documentary “The Last Mountain” and discussed the many negatives of coal mining. We know how destructive mining for coal can be and how important it is for our country to move towards clean, green energies. Renewable energies have so many positives and the continued use of nonrenewable so many negatives. Chicago and the state of Illinois is a major player here as we are 5th in the U.S. for coal generation. For those not in the know, we have coal mines in the southern part of our state.


Now, Illinois Governor Quinn would like to move more coal processing even closer to home – East Chicago area to be exact at 115th and Burley Ave, close to the Calumet River. According to this article today, in the SouthtownStar, Quinn has just signed a coal gasification plant bill. The plant would be built on the site of the former LTV Steel Coke Battery plant that shutdown down back in 2001 which now considered a “brownfield” site. Plans to get this plant up and going has been in the works since 2010 with considerable opposition and concerns from environmental groups such as Sierra Club. The project is a proposal by Chicago Clean Energy, a subsidiary of Leucadia National. See this link for a history of this plan.

So what is coal gasification? According to Wikipedia, coal gasification is the process of producing coal gas, a type of syngas–a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour (H2O)–from coal. So, first off, obviously you still need to mine that coal out of the ground (or destroy the mountain tops) to get it. So, nothing has been “greened” in that step of the process even though in the SouthtownStar article, Quinn called “the plant a ‘clean energy project’ that would convert Illinois coal to natural gas in an ‘environmentally positive way.’” In addition to coal the plant would use coke, an oil refinery byproduct, as feed stock. Well, that doesn’t sound isn’t very “clean or green,” does it? We are still mining and burning coal. Maybe there is some “greenwashing” going on?

In the bill, Leucadia National and Chicago Clean Energy are required to “capture and sequester 85 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions.” Sequestered carbon emissions get stored underground. Well, that sounds better than not capturing them at all and letting all those emissions – also known as “greenhouse gases” go right into the atmosphere, right? After all, we have more than enough of these gases to deal – why would we want to build a plant that increases this?


According to the SouthtownStar article, Tom Mara, an executive vice president with Leucadia and president of Chicago Clean Energy says the plant “would create at least 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs.” This is great! But, green energy can produce jobs too – and ones without health risks.

According to “The Last Mountain” website, wind farms are providing a strong clean alternative to coal with jobs being created. Fact: “The wind Industry operates more than 35,000 turbines and employs 85,000 people in the U.S. – the same number the coal industry employs. In 2009, enough turbines were built to power 2.4 million homes.”

After the plant is completed, what about the cost to residents of the area and workers at the plant in the form of health problems? According to the Sierra Club, the plant will burn waste from oil refineries, which is known to contain heavy metals that cause birth defects and cancer. This is all very familiar as we look back on recent protests by concerned Chicago residents and the Sierra Club to close old coal-fired power plants in Chicago because of mercury exposure. And if you don’t believe the local residents of our city, take a look at the facts from the movie “The Last Mountain” and the health concerns of living near a plant that processes coal.


Governor Quinn states that the Chicago plant “would cost $3 billion to complete, would consume at least 1 million tons of coal annually and would be instrumental in helping the United States become more energy independent. He also hinted that securing a reliable domestic energy supply might trump environmental concerns.” Hmm, well, surely all Americans would be in favor of having a local supply of energy – this is true. But the environmental concerns do not go away – they are still there. I don’t believe they will be “trumped.”

So, are the health and environmental risks worth it? How else could we be spending that $3 Billion? We would be further advancing into the future of green energy by turning a “brownfield” into a “greenfield” instead of “browning it all over again.” Shouldn’t Chicago be taking steps towards the “green” renewable energies of the future instead of holding on the nonrenewable “brown” energy of past? After all, one day that “brown” energy will be gone forever – what will we do then?

Governor Quinn states “We have to be practical and realistic in our country. Ultimately, we have to have energy.” Of course, this is true. We all know this. But are we taking two steps back by not embracing a greener form of energy in Chicago? Chicago has a history of trying to be a “green” city. We have green buildings, green offices, green businesses, green restaurants, green roofs, green homes even the Green Festival now makes a yearly stop here. Where are we at with green energies? Chicago, are we “greenwashing” our “brown” energy?

“The two most abundant forms of power on earth are solar and wind, and they're getting cheaper and cheaper…~ Ed Begley, Jr.
The "Greenwashing" of Coal:  Mr. Coal has an epiphany

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Chicago Green Film Review: “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”

Last evening, eco-Andersonville featured a premiere one-night showing of “If a Tree Falls” at Chicago Filmmakers as part of Chicago’s Andersonville Green Week. I was able to attend the screening. “If a Tree Falls” is the story of the radical environmental activist group, Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who are often viewed as an “eco-terrorists.” The film has won several awards: Sundance Film Festival -Documentary Editing Award, Dallas Film Festival - Environmental Visions Award, Nashville Film Festival -Best Documentary and Santa Cruz Film Festival - EarthVision Environmental Jury Prize.

The original philosophy behind ELF was created in 1977 by John Hanna and was called Environmental Life Force before Earth First! (1979) and the Earth Liberation Front. The Earth Liberation Front is said to have actually started in 1992 coming from the concepts of the original ELF. This documentary features an in-depth look into the 1992 Earth Liberation Front with one of its former members, Daniel McGowan.


Throughout the film, Daniel McGowan gives us his personal story of his involvement with ELF as he experiences house arrest while awaiting his trial in NYC and the possibility of life in prison. Coming from a typical upbringing in Rockaway, NY, with his father being a NY cop, Daniel’s childhood is doesn’t paint a picture of someone who you would think to become a radical environmental activist. He majored in business in college because he thought that was the smart thing to do. One day someone approached him on the street about environmental issues and, being very passionate about these issues, he attended a meeting at the “Wetlands,” an environmental resource center. There he saw some films on the environment that deeply affected and changed him into taking more direct action. In 1998, he moved to the Northwest which was a very active center in environmental activism.

With protest after protest, Daniel and other young environmental activists grew tired of their voices not being heard took a more destructive path to direct action. The non-violent protest and street demonstrations they was partaking in were not accomplishing anything and even being met with resistance and violence by area police. So, even though he had his reservations, Daniel starting taking a more destructive action in the form of arson to communicate a message he felt very strongly. Daniel says, “When you're screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

Daniel took part in only two arson events in 2001, out of the many actually done by ELF. One was at Superior Lumber Corporation, an old growth logging company in Oregon, and Jefferson Poplar Farms, which was suspected to be performing genetic engineering on trees, which turned out not to be the case. After participating in these two actions, he decided to leave the group in 2001 as he was uncomfortable with the direction being taken and felt remorse about the arsons. He moved back to NYC. Four years after the arsons, he was called out by Jake Ferguson and other ELF members who cooperated with the FBI in Operation Backfire. He pleaded guilty for in November 2006 for the two arsons he participated in. After being on house arrest for 8 months, he was sentence to 7 years, although was originally set to a life sentence. He is now considered a “terrorist.” Jake Ferguson who participated in these arsons too received no time at all.

Daniel looks back on the arsons in this interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and states, “I have regrets that I, you know, employed arson as a tactic. I don’t think morally I’m wrong about what I did, but I do think, strategically and tactically it is unwise decision.”


The term “eco-terrorism” is a “buzz word” that is said to have been created by Ron Arnold, who is “anti-environment” and an adversary of the environmental movement. According to Wikipedia, its definition is as follows: “Eco-terrorism usually refers to acts of violence or sabotage committed in support of ecological, environmental, or animal rights causes against persons or their property.”

The film brings up several thought provoking questions about the term after hearing Daniel’s story and the reasoning’s behind his actions and, through several interviewees in the film, one gets to thinking about the definition of terrorism, especially in the light of 9/11 terrorists attacks which the film touches on. How can an activist like Daniel be labeled a terrorist in the vein of the same people who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks or the Oklahoma City Bombings? ELF members in their direct actions always took extreme precautions that no person or animal was in the building or areas where they performed their arson but yet they are labeled terrorists and imprisoned with the same terrorists responsible for the death of many Americans? Who would be considered to be a greater threat to the nation?

One interview with a worker from the Native Forest Council states that he “is not against cutting down trees but the fact that 95% of the native forests in the U.S. have been cut down. That is radical. So, why is saving the remaining 5 per cent of the US's native standing trees radical when the actions of the logging companies, which have cut down 95 per cent of the nation's native standing forests, are not seen as radical?"

So, how is what the logging corporations are doing any different than what the radical protesting groups are doing? Isn’t cutting down 95% of the native forests with trees aged 500 years old or even older, radical also? Can ravaging the old growth forests and destroying the homes of the creatures that live in these forests also be considered “eco-terrorism”? Who are really the “terrorists” or the “radicals” here? – the corporations that destroy the forests for profit or a group of passionate people who try to save them? These are the questions that the film very effectively brings to the viewers mind.


Another interviewee also brings up interesting point, an Oregon Police Caption states, “If you disagree with their motives, they are a terrorist. If you agree with their motives, they are a hero.” This is definitely something to take into consideration when judging the actions of others. How you may view depends on where your point of view starts in the first place.

“If a Tree Falls” does just that- it presents another side to something to which, on the surface, seems like it will be so simple to take a side, but when you dig deep into it like director Marshall Curry did, you find something surprisingly intricate. As he states, in this interview with, “But as we started digging, it just became more and more interesting. Each of the characters surprised me. There are some topics for documentaries that on the surface seem really great. Then you start digging and things are what you expect. In this case, it was the opposite..... This movie has a point of view. It’s complex.”

Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we can't eat money.” ~ Native American Indian Cree proverb

Sunday, July 3, 2011

““The Last Mountain” shows a passionate tale of local grassroots activism on Dirty Coal

Last weekend the eco-documentary “The Last Mountain” made its debut in Chicago for a week long run at the Landmark Century Cinema in Lakeview. I was able to reserve a free ticket offered by the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) to view this exciting documentary. The Last Mountain is so full of useful, shocking and thought-provoking information I almost don’t know where to begin. First off I will say that if you never thought of the consequences of flipping on your light switch, you will after you see this film.

From The Last Mountain website here is short cut a summary of the film:

“In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal….A passionate and personal tale that honors the extraordinary power of ordinary Americans when they fight for what they believe in, THE LAST MOUNTAIN shines a light on America’s energy needs and how those needs are being supplied. It is a fight for our future that affects us all.” - See the full synopsis here.


Some might be thinking that, if this is happening all the way in West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains, how does that affect us here in Chicago? Well, it affects us plenty. Why? Because we also have coal mines here in the Southern part of our state. Since Illinois is flat with no mountains, so we have mostly underground mines but, in the Appalachia, the mountain top coal mining creates a bit of different problem. Here are some basic facts from the film that were quite eye opening:

• Almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from the burning of coal.
Sixteen pounds of coal is burned each day for every man woman and child in the US.
Thirty-percent of that coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia.
• Burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide.

Mountain top coaling mining is basically removing of the top of a mountain to get at the coal – it is not right there on the surface even though it is considered a form of surface mining. Mountain top mining has serious environmental, health and job impacts:

• Mountain top removal has destroyed 500 Appalachian Mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams.
• There are 312 coal sludge impoundments in Appalachia.
Massey Energy 28 impoundments have spilled 24 times in the last decade, contaminating rivers with more than 300 million gallons of sludge; two times the amount released in BP’s Gulf oil disaster.
• In the last 30 years the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140% while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs.
• The health and environmental costs associated with mining, transporting and burning coal, as reported by a new Harvard Medical School study, are estimated to be $345 billion annually – or more than 17¢ per kilowatt hour. These costs are often referred to as “externalities” since they are costs borne by the public which are not reflected in the price of coal-fired electricity.
• There are 600 coal-fired power plants across the United States, and over 600 ash ponds across the country, filled with 150 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
• Each year emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute to more than 10 million asthma attacks, brain damage in up to 600,000 newborn children, and 43,000 premature deaths.
• The EPA has announced that in 48 states, it’s unsafe to eat many freshwater fish due to mercury contamination.

In between the mountains valleys called “hollows”, there are towns in these hollows – yes, people live there. When the mountain tops are destroyed from mining, the company tries to “reconstruct” them with rocks – not the soil that was once there. Before the mining anytime it rained, the soil would absorb the rain unlike the new reconstruct of rock which absorbs nothing. So the water washes down (along with all the toxins released by mining– mercury, arsenic, lead) and the hollow floods. These toxins end up in well water, streams and rivers, and poison the people who drink it and the animals who live in it. Silicon dust, from mining blasts, can cause a condition called silicosis which can be fatal.

Mr. Troubled Mountain and Mr. Evil Bomb are original designs by KimKat


We here in Chicago should be concerned about this because even though the one of most abundant source of coal (oldest and highest in carbon content too) comes from the Appalachian Mountains, the “Illinois Basin” is also a high player in the coal industry. We are also 5th in the nation in coal power generation, with 83 operating coal-fired units at 33 locations (see here for map).

According to this article on, Illinois accounts for 21 percent, or 104 billion tons, of the U.S. coal reserve base. That’s enough to power the country for 52 years, second to Montana. And, according to this data sheet by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, here some fact about what happens to that Illinois coal:

• 49 percent of the electricity used in Illinois and 49.7 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. is generated from coal. 
• More than 90 percent of Illinois coal produced was purchased by the electric utility industry in 2007.
• More than 80 percent of Illinois coal is sold to out-of-state utilities.
• Illinois utilities and industrial facilities used 5.6 million tons of Illinois coal in 2007.

So, 30% from the Appalachians and 21% from Illinois, that’s a little over half the coal for the entire country- so, the coal problem is closer to home than most people think.


The grassroots activism group “Climate Ground Zero” is also featured in the film. The activists come to the Coal River Valley specifically to protest mountain top coal mining. They risk getting arrested (and many have!) and they camp up in tree tents for “tree-ins” a few yards away from explosives to stop the mining. Several other environmental action groups are also featured in the film: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Mountain Justice, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Coal River Wind.

Coal River Wind is an organization that has started up a large 328-megwatt wind farm on the high ridges of the mountain. Besides the positive environmental and health perks that come with using renewable and clean energies, the goal is to find green replacements for the coal jobs. The wind farm will generate more long-term jobs and money than coal mining even would and will power 70,000 homes. The wind capacity on the mountain is a "class 5" - which is towards the high level of  the "wind class" scale. This scale goes from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). Lorelei Scarbro, who works with Coal River Wind, says, ““This county stands to gain $1.742 million dollars from this mountain annually [from a wind farm], as opposed to the $36,000 the county would earn [annually] from the mountaintop removal operation.” See the facts below:

• The wind industry in the U.S. already operates more than 35,000 turbines, and employs 85,000 people– as many as work in the coal industry.
• 7.9¢ typical cost of electricity from wind per kilowatt hour.
• 6.1¢ typical cost of electricity from coal per kilowatt hour.
• Per the Harvard Medical School report noted above, the cost of coal electricity goes up by approximately 17¢ per kilowatt hour, totaling 23.1¢ – or nearly three times that of wind – if you include the following costs borne by the public: Air Pollution Illnesses, Mercury Poisoning, Health Damages from Carcinogens, Public Health Cost to Appalachia, Climate Change Impact.
• The wind Industry operates more than 35,000 turbines and employs 85,000 people in the U.S. – the same number the coal industry employs. In 2009, enough turbines were built to power 2.4 million homes.
• In 1991, the Department of Energy published a “National Wind Resource Inventory” which pointed out that three states – Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas – have enough harnessable wind energy to supply the nation’s electricity needs. However, since the report was based on 1991 wind technologies and turbines are so much more efficient today, we now know that the DOE’s projection was a gross underestimate.
• According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Renewable Portfolio Standard of 20% by 2020 would create: 185,000 new jobs from development, $25.6B in income to farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners and $10.5B in electricity and natural gas savings to consumers by 2020.

All facts above provided by The Last Mountain Website.

Learn more about how you can TAKE ACTION here:

Watch the Official Trailer:

Quote from the film:
“Everyone is connected to coal whether they realize it or not.” – Marie Gunnae, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC)

Mr.Troubled Mountain is an original design by KimKat.