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ARGENTINA: Adding More Coal to the Fire

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 10 2010 (IPS) - Bucking recommendations to build up renewable energy sources, Argentina is forging ahead with a plan that will increase its dependence on coal, regarded as the most polluting fossil fuel.

Next to the Río Turbio coal mine, in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz, a group of private companies is building a coal-fired thermoelectric power station that will supply electricity to the national grid.

Environmentalists are opposing the power plant, designed to have a capacity of 240 megawatts, consume 5,400 tonnes of coal a day and produce 1.6 million tonnes of waste a year, the disposal of which is not clearly addressed in the environmental impact study, they say.

The National Prosecution Office of Administrative Investigations (FIA) received a complaint in 2009 demanding a more comprehensive assessment of the environmental impact of the plant, which, it indicates, will emit 5,000 tonnes a day of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

In addition, it will emit sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which produce acid rain, as well as carbon monoxide and liquid waste contaminated with chromium, aluminium, barium, ammonia, arsenic and mercury, the complaint says.

Many of these toxic pollutants are concentrated in the ash residues, both volatile airborne and heavier solid wastes. Ash particles contain radioactive elements like uranium and thorium, as well as mercury.

“To make matters worse, this power station is only the first step in a plan to begin large-scale coal use as an energy source,” the head of the Argentine chapter of Greenpeace, Juan Carlos Villalonga, told IPS.

The Energy Ministry plans to increase reliance on coal as an electricity source from the present level of 0.5 percent of electricity output to four percent in 2025, by building more coal-fired power plants to a total capacity of 3,000 megawatts.

Argentina’s current energy mix is highly dependent on fossil fuels, with 52 percent of electricity coming from natural gas, 37 percent from oil and 0.5 percent from coal.

The rest is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which contribute 4.3 percent, nuclear power plants producing 2.7 percent, and the remainder from wood, bagasse and other clean, renewable energy sources. By law, Argentina must increase its renewable energies to a level of eight percent by 2016.

“At a time when phasing out coal use for the sake of the environment is a global imperative, Argentina, which has a wealth of alternative energy sources to exploit, is choosing the dirtiest option,” Villalonga complained.

Greenpeace insists that this South American country should invest more in less polluting conventional sources, like natural gas, hydropower or liquid fuels, or even better, pursue wind and solar energy which have huge untapped potential.

“Given all the alternatives, it is irrational to opt for coal, the dirtiest local fuel, which generates the most greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” Villalonga said.

Construction of the coal-fired power station is opposed by local residents grouped in the Citizens’ Environmental Assembly in Río Gallegos, the capital of Santa Cruz province, located 300 kilometres from Río Turbio.

Members of the Assembly who participated in a public hearing about the project expressed concern that the environmental impact study does not specify how waste from the mine will be disposed of.

Villalonga says these problems are known to the authorities, who made the first payments for the project to the group of companies headed by Spain’s Isolux before they had even presented an environmental impact study.

In contrast, the people of Río Turbio are not against the project. The coal mine, which gave rise to the town in an inhospitable part of the country, has been revived in recent years by hefty subsidies, and the power plant would guarantee jobs and continued development for the community.

But experts point to the risks of burning coal. U.S. physician Alan Lockwood, co-author of the report “Coal’s Assault on Human Health”, spoke to IPS about the dangers.

From the time it is mined until the final disposal of waste products, and especially during the burning of the fuel, coal causes respiratory diseases, heart disease, strokes and cancer, in addition to the damage it does to the environment.

Lockwood visited Río Gallegos and met with Assembly members and Río Turbio authorities to warn them about the risks, which would not only affect miners but also residents living near the coal mine.

“The closer to the mine, the greater the danger” of pollution, the doctor warned. Microparticles inhaled from the air also pollute water and fish with uranium, thorium and mercury.

Villalonga maintains that coal mines made sense in the mid-20th century, when the United Kingdom stopped supplying Argentina with coal during the Second World War (1939-1945). But now coal as an energy source is anachronistic, he says.

Coal is an abundant fuel, “but has serious environmental drawbacks,” warned Greenpeace Argentina in its report titled “Carbón: combustible para el cambio climático” (Coal: Fuelling Climate Change).

At present, coal supplies 26.5 percent of global primary energy and generates 41.5 percent of the world’s electricity. Seventy-five percent of coal reserves are located in just five countries: the United States, Russia, China, Australia and India.

But “phasing out coal use is a global imperative” for mitigating climate change, the Greenpeace report says, because its use as a fuel results in the highest level of climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.

In Argentina, the Energy Ministry’s plan to increase coal’s share in the energy mix will lead to higher carbon dioxide emissions.

“The total paralysis in the development of wind energy contrasts with the country’s dynamic development of its coalfields,” the Greenpeace report says.

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