DURING the chilly predawn of October 3, 1992, cool air flooding southeast from China washed over the lush limestone hills of Southeast Asia into the valleys of the Mae Moh province in northern Thailand. There it formed a classic atmospheric inversion, trapping the sulfurous exhaust from 13 coal-burning power plants. These gases began to react with the fog, forming an acid that dripped to the ground.
Within hours, cattle keeled over dead, their hides blistered. Rice plants wilted. Banana leaves withered to a dark brown. Groggy farmers and their families awoke with throats, eyes and lungs seared and burning, pain shooting into their chests. Before it was over, more than 4,000 had sought medical help.
On the heels of a national outcry that followed these poisonings, the Thai government mandated that scrubbers-devices that remove sulfur dioxide from the exhaust gases of power plants-be installed. With these, the villagers thought, they were safe.
Wrong. On August 16, 1998, Wulniga Kingkunkum, who had been hospitalized five days in 1992, once again awakened with a raw throat, headache and nausea. This time, plant officials said, the scrubbers all malfunctioned simultaneously, a claim greeted with skepticism by many villagers and some members of the Thai parliament, who sought in vain for some other explanation. For two days, levels of sulfur dioxide hovered at 2,200 micrograms per cubic meter, more than eight times the U.S. limit. This time, Kingkunkum and more than 1,000 other villagers, most elderly or children, required treatment.
Little wonder that when previously secret plans to construct a new complex of power plants about 200 miles south in Thailand's Prachaup Khiri Khan province were unveiled, residents protested. On December 8, 1998, 10,000 villagers rallied against the plants.
Although coal-fired power plants such as the ones at Mae Moh and the proposed facilities at Prachaup Khiri Khan generate electricity to fuel new development, many people-not only in Thailand, but around the world-are beginning to recognize the cost. From Canada to the Czech Republic, coal-fired power plants are generating millions of tons of pollution, and increasingly, everyday people are balking about paying the environmental price.
Without doubt, coal, which powered the Industrial Revolution, is the fuel that has most changed the course of human history, but it is no overstatement to say that its use as humanity has always known is under siege. "It is possible that coal will still be used at the century's end," says Alan Lloyd, chairman of the California Air Resources Board and an international expert on energy and air pollution, "but, if so, it will be in radically different ways, because to continue simply burning it is to invite global catastrophe."
Trees and other plants are the raw materials for coal. In a process that takes a million years or more, they will die, be buried, crushed, compressed, thrust deep within the earth, folded, flooded, heated and cooled. Then, rock hard, ranging in color from brown to black, the vegetation-turned-fuel can be set afire and used to heat homes or buildings, generate steam, smelt ores, manufacture chemicals.
Coal exists almost everywhere, and there is enough of it globally to last at least 230 years. Eight of every 10 pounds are found in seven locations: the nations of the former Soviet Union (with 23 percent of world reserves); the United States (23 percent); and China (11 percent); followed by Australia, Germany, India and South Africa.
Because coal is so widespread and its price is both stable and low, it is a favorite for generating electricity. With much of the developing world now embracing the fruits of electrification, coal consumption is rocketing in most of Asia, South America and Africa.
The health costs of burning coal have been a worry from the beginning. When blacksmiths and iron makers in Europe switched to coal about ten centuries ago as supplies of wood began to dwindle, complaints from citizens were immediate: "The stench of smoke penetrates the halls and chambers," said one. …