A Secular Glance in Coal Among Northeastern Pennsylvania

Coal—the darkness animated by fire, the acrid smoke hurling future death into the air from chimneys, the ebony sheen, the stories deep in the black underworld of mines, the horrific recoil environmentalists liquefy into at the mention of its name, that long train whistle, burning dinosaur bones. Coal for all its uncovered malice, is nearly extinct in the United States. Seventy years ago half of America’s homes warmed their evenings and blistering winters with heat produced by coal—now, in 2019, that number has dwindled to less than 130,000 homes. What was once an American empire has been ravaged by circumstance—the Greenhouse effect entered the collective consciousness upon the backs of global climate related disasters, polar ice caps falling into the sea, monstrous hurricanes eviscerating New Orleans and Houston, the planetary temperature climbing higher inch by inch….these are sins by which coal now where’s the malicious mantle. But there are two sides to every hysterical coin….

In a recent NPR article, Northeastern Pennsylvania resident John Ord, among others, was profiled for his continued use of coal to heat his home. Once about every two weeks Mr. Ord drives to a hardware store in his rural community where he buys close to 400 pounds of coal in forty pound bags, which he then lugs home to feed into the hopper of a coal-burning stove in his basement. This keeps the house a comfortable 70-72 degrees throughout the harsh northeast winter months, and most importantly, is cheaper than oil and electric he says. “It’s cleaner too”, he says, pointing to a dry chimney atop the house, “No smoke at all”.

While it may be cleaner than the more common bituminous coal burned in industrial applications, this does not mean the anthracite coal Mr. Ord is burning is contributing CO2 free emissions into the Susquehanna skies, according the Energy Information Association. “It still emits quite a bit of dangerous sulfur dioxide, as well as heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury,” says Tom Schuster with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

But there is a human side to this within the depth of the Quaker state. Pennsylvania sits atop vast coal reserves in its lumbering hills, which were tapped into for a century by the prosperous coal industry which called the state home. Generations of families grew up, lived, and died by the whims of the coal industry. Now all that remains are a few stragglers who are operating more out of namesake nostalgia than any logical pursuit of profit. Coal is contributing to the decline of planetary health yes, it fosters the Greenhouse effect’s meteoric rise, and is a piece that would need to be moved off the board to achieve a clean energy future by 2050—that’s all true. Yet before we throw our voices against the walls of Washington in circus-like, Twitter-funded hysterical cries for legislation and a New Green Deal utterly devoid of scientific reality, perhaps we should consider families like Mr. Ord. Perhaps we should help them transition to cleaner forms of energy instead of lassoing them to our conclusions with the firebrand whip of idealism.

Coal must be overtaken by cleaner alternatives, but those cannot be solar and wind renewables alone. Nuclear energy must have a seat at that table and it must be at the head. As they say, the numbers don’t lie. Just like the readings on all Otek’s digital panel meters—super bright LED technology is accurate, reliable, and efficient. We don’t know what will happen to individuals like Mr. Ord or bituminous coal facilities with their smoking towers when the dust settles in Washington, but Otek’s lights will still be on, faithfully keeping their measurement—instrumentation that measures up.

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