Thursday, January 26, 2012

Anti-Coal Facts

Found this site from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Air Pollution from Coal:

  • 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary human cause of global warming--as much carbon dioxide as cutting down 161 million trees.
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain that damages forests, lakes, and buildings, and forms small airborne particles that can penetrate deep into lungs.
  • 500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death, as well as haze obstructing visibility.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), as much as would be emitted by half a million late-model cars. NOx leads to formation of ozone (smog) which inflames the lungs, burning through lung tissue making people more susceptible to respiratory illness.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), which causes headaches and place additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
  • 170 pounds of mercury, where just 1/70th of a teaspoon deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
  • 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

  • Waste generated:

    Solid wasteWaste created by a typical 500-megawatt coal plant includes more than 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber each year. Nationally, more than 75% of this waste is disposed of in unlined, unmonitored onsite landfills and surface impoundments.
    Toxic substances in the waste -- including arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium -- can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital human organs and the nervous system. One study found that one out of every 100 children who drink groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal power plant wastes were at risk of developing cancer. Ecosystems too have been damaged -- sometimes severely or permanently -- by the disposal of coal plant waste.
    Cooling water discharge
    Once the 2.2 billion gallons of water have cycled through the coal-fired power plant, they are released back into the lake, river, or ocean. This water is hotter (by up to 20-25° F) than the water that receives it. This "thermal pollution" can decrease fertility and increase heart rates in fish. Typically, power plants also add chlorine or other toxic chemicals to their cooling water to decrease algae growth. These chemicals are also discharged back into the environment.
    Waste heat
    Much of the heat produced from burning coal is wasted. A typical coal power plant uses only 33-35% of the coal's heat to produce electricity. The majority of the heat is released into the atmosphere or absorbed by the cooling water.
    Environmental Impact:
    Coal mining
    About 60% of U.S. coal is stripped from the earth in surface mines; the rest comes from underground mines. Surface coal mining may dramatically alter the landscape. Coal companies throughout Appalachia often remove entire mountain tops to expose the coal below. The wastes are generally dumped in valleys and streams.
    In West Virginia, more than 300,000 acres of hardwood forests (half the size of Rhode Island) and 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by this practice.
    Underground mining is one of the most hazardous of occupations, killing and injuring many in accidents, and causing chronic health problems.
    Coal transportation
    A typical coal plant requires 40 railroad cars to supply 1.4 million tons in a year. That's 14,600 railroad cars a year.
    Railroad locomotives, which rely on diesel fuel, emit nearly 1 million tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and 52,000 tons of coarse and small particles in the United States. Coal dust blowing from coal trains contributes particulate matter to the air.
    Coal storage
    Coal burned by power plants is typically stored onsite in uncovered piles. Dust blown from coal piles irritates the lungs and often settles on nearby houses and yards. Rainfall creates runoff from coal piles. This runoff contains pollutants that can contaminate land and water.

    Water Use:
    A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, to create steam for turning its turbines. This is enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people. 
    When this water is drawn into the power plant, 21 million fish eggs, fish larvae, and juvenile fish may also come along with it -- and that's the average for a single species in just one year. In addition, EPA estimates that up to 1.5 million adult fish a year may become trapped against the intake structures. Many of these fish are injured or die in the process.

    Some Coal Facts

    From pro-coal industry website Fast Facts About Coal:

    • Nine out of ten tons of coal in the U.S. are used to generate electricity.
    • More than 2.3 million acres of mined land have been reclaimed over the past 25 years—that’s an area larger than the state of Delaware.
    • The United States has about a 235-year supply of coal, if it continues using coal at the same rate at which it uses coal today.
    • Montana is the state with the most coal reserves (119 billion tons). But Wyoming is the top coal-producing state—it produced over 400 million tons in 2010.
    • Texas is the top coal-consuming state. It uses about 100 million tons each year.
    • The average coal miner is 50 years old and has 20 years of experience.
    • Coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, is used as filler for tennis racketsgolf balls, and linoleum.
    • U.S. coal deposits contain more energy than that of all the world’s oil reserves.

    I found a really good article about the coal industry on the website of the West Virginia Gazette:
    Left out of the Daily Mail’s news coverage?
    There was no mention of another recent report (also not really peer-reviewed) by the folks at Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, which argued that coal actually costs the state government more money than it generates.
    And neither of their stories mentioned the growing body of work coming out of West Virginia University (hardly an institution that is out to get the coal industry)  about how residents near coal mining operations generally and mountaintop removal sites specifically show poorer health than those who don’t leave near mining.
    Good stuff.  Arguing about bad media coverage.   

    What's interesting about Coal?

    We watched part of a documentary about mountaintop removal, THE LAST MOUNTAIN.

    Here's a link to the website to the movie.

    I like this movie for a couple of reasons.  I'm going to skip my inclination to side with the filmmakers, because that's not something I can avoid or ignore.  I think that this movie does a good job of breaking the issue of mountaintop removal into manageable and understandable chunks - since I didn't understand it very well before this movie - and presents evidence or reasons for their position in relation to each of those parts.  For example, the movie points out that mountaintop removal is permitted partly because coal companies are required to return the mountain to its original state when they are finished removing the coal.  Then, they show a clip of a site after the coal company has allegedly returned the mountain to its original condition.  This becomes the logical beginning of a discussion about how coal companies manipulate the law to maximize profit.

    There are some propaganda techniques evident in the film.  Clearly, some of the clips are intended to be heart-wrenching, sympathetic portrayals of union workers and protesters, and copious evidence of corporate wrongdoing.  But the film is unusually evidence-based, and I've seen other movies that present similar evidence against mountaintop removal.  They employ some breathtaking photography, lots of visual examples and contrast, and some rousing testimony from people on the "front lines."  I love that it's localized around one mountain (called Coal Mountain), and that the people around that mountain are the stars.

    I think that this movie is on the leading edge of the current controversy around coal and "clean coal" technology.  I think that mountaintop removal is a horrible, destructive practice, and there is no question that coal companies are tearing apart wilderness for coal, and making false claims to defend their destructive actions.  These false claims are supported again and again by lobbyists, politicians, and the companies' employees.  It's a tragedy.

    What's going to happen?

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Cool Word: RIMPLE

    It just means "wrinkle" or "fold."  It works as a noun or a verb.

    Apparently, there's a Fijian actress named Rimple Sumer.

    It's a moderately common name, apparently, in some part of India.  There are a lot of faces on the Google image search.

    I like that it kind of feels "folded"; you can hear the sound of folding in the word a little.  Just a little.

    Okay, so this word is really not that cool.  But maybe you didn't know it already?

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    Coal Mission

    Sorry, I'm really enjoying the way these pictures look on the blog.  Here are some random pictures of coal:

    I have to go to Home Depot today.  It's going to be my mission to find out where I can buy some coal.  I want to play with it.  I'd like to bring it in to my classroom and let my students see what it's like.  

    "And Two Eyes Made Out of Coal"

    Frosty the Snowman, with "two eyes made out of coal"

    Frosty is supposed to be a kid's outdoor project, right?  The kids use stuff they have at hand to decorate the snowman.  But who has lumps of coal lying around these days?

    The answer is, really, no one.  We don't heat our homes with shovelfuls of coal anymore.  Not like we used to.  Gas is cheaper, cleaner, and easier.  Why would you trouble with truckloads of coal anymore?  Unless you live next to a coal mine, it would be a big mess.

    Why does Santa bring lumps of coal to naughty kids?  Because coal is messy and the complete opposite of fun.  Not only is it plain and useless (to a kid), it's also commonplace and related to hard work.

    But what about charcoal?  Those of us who have charcoal grills would probably not encourage our children to pull out a briquet and stick it on a snowman.  It would also be huge - unless you want a snowman with bug eyes, it's going to look weird.  You could break the chunk into smaller pieces, but it's going to take some kind of tool to make the pieces a usable shape.

    This is a nice way to think about the social implications of changes in technology.  We still sing about coal, and maybe talk about lumps of coal in our stockings, but what would we do if we really wanted to put a lump of coal in someone's stocking?  Where would you be able to find a piece of coal - not charcoal?

    Art supply stores?

    Viscid Pics

    Wow.  If you do an image search for VISCID, you get some weird pictures:
    Something really sticky.

    Viscid Mallow

    Viscid Mushroom
    Top is a nice picture of something really sticky.  Middle is a picture of a plant called "viscid mallow."  Because it's sticky.  And bottom is  a purple mushroom called a "viscid mushroom."  I guess it's sticky.  It looks kind of nasty and poisonous, doesn't it?

    This is apart from the band or the other weird pictures.

    Sometimes it's fun to do an image search on a strange word - people make unusual connections to images, and they tag pictures strangely, and those are often the reason that images appear when you search for a term.

    Cool Words - Viscid

    I was digging through my old "word of the day" e-mails from and found this cool word from a recent e-mail - VISCID.  It means "sticky," and it's a common medical and technical term for something that's sticky.  Viscid oil is bad, viscid rot is a kind of decay found in fruit like cranberries, viscid mucous can be a medical disorder, etc.  It's related to viscous and viscosity, and words like that.  But it sounds cool - there's at least one rock band and one marketing company that use the word as a name.  I like words like this - they have a texture that . . . sticks.  (Sorry.)  

    When you google this word, eventually you get to this headline from a research article:

    "Do Viscid Secretions Have a Role in Nasal Polyp Formation?"

    To me, this sounds a lot like, 
    "Do boogers come from sticky snot?"

    Ah, the power of jargon.

    Saturday, January 21, 2012

    Research = Work?

    So I was listening to Car Talk, the NPR show with the two old mechanics from the Boston area who take phone calls about car trouble.  They were talking to a woman from Palo Alto who was having problems with a noise in her tire.  Eventually, they asked her what she did for a living.  She answered, "I'm a graduate student."  Of course, they asked what she studied, and she responded, "Italian literature." They tried to make that into pleasant "small talk," and something came up about "at least you get to go to Italy."  She said, "Yes, for research," and one of the hosts said, "sounds like a lot of work."

    My first thought was, "what the heck are you talking about?"

    My second thought was, "you must not be someone who enjoys research."

    I was putting myself in her place.  I was thinking about what it feels like, to finally dig into the topic to try to create your own original work, your own take on the issues that stir your field.  To step forward and assume the mantle of the professional scholar, diving into the topic to discover and explain something new.  An intellectual astronaut, as it were.  If you are the kind of person who is lucky enough to have found a field that you can be passionate about, this is a dream come true.  This is akin to meeting your childhood hero and getting his/her autograph and then sitting down for dinner with that person.  It's a chance to drive your dream car, go on a date with your dream girl/boy, sleep in your dream house, and so on.  It's a GOOD thing, not work.  It's a chance to play in the "big show," the audition for the lead on Broadway, and so on.  It's not a bad thing.  It's not work.

    There's lots of ways to think about this.  I know that not everyone likes research, and not everyone gets a chance or a reason to conduct research on a topic that they love.  But it's the kind of skill that everyone needs and that everyone wants.  It might be work to do research for something you hate, but hopefully a graduate student is not someone who hates to do research.  Hopefully, it's the opposite.

    My point is this: research doesn't have to be work.  It doesn't have to be painful and soul-crushing.

    That's not to say that it isn't difficult or sometimes time-consuming or even expensive (like flying to Italy).  But my own research experience was not really work, or not always work.  True, there were a lot of difficult nights with piles of dense, seemingly irrelevant text to wade through.  But there were great moments and the pleasure of discovery.  There were times when I could make sense of things, and I could explain something new.  That's a great feeling.  I feel like I learned something and made something, and that has helped me in ways that are hard to explain sometimes.  Perhaps it's like the kid who can be successful in sports, so he/she feels more confident off the playing field because of success on it.  I don't know if that's adequate.  But research is a chance to make something new, building things from the knowledge and experience of others.  It's important now because of the vast opportunity to conduct research via the Internet and other electronic tools.

    This is an ongoing concern, and I don't think I've adequately expressed it here.  I'm going to think about the research process and post again when I'm ready to try to explain it again.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    OCTOBER SKY and coal

    Well, I watched this movie because it came up in the library database attached to the keyword "coal."  It's not really about coal, though it's set in West Virginia in a "company town," and the main character and his father are coal miners (or, in the case of the main character, work as a coal miner for a few months).  It's about someone struggling against unlikely circumstances to be successful in a way that people don't expect or predict.  It - or the director, Joe Johnston - sets the film in West Virginia, but that's more because of the "true story" that it's based on than because of any inherent need in the film for that setting.  Homer's dad could have been a steel worker, a dock worker, a farmer, just about anything that could be dangerous or boring, and it would also work.

    I think this movie is relevant to the conversation about coal, though, and sheds light on the situation of coal mining that would not otherwise be noticed.  It's a mainstream, large-scale release of a film by a major studio (Universal) with some top-name actors (Jake Gyllenhall, though he wasn't a superstar yet, Laura Dern, and Chris Cooper), and several parts of the movie take place inside a coal mine in what appears to be a realistic depiction.  It's not friendly to the coal-mining industry, but it's also not friendly to unions, either.  It's that ambiguity about the setting that really makes it an interesting study for this topic.  

    Here's a link to the IMDB profile if you want to see more about the film:  

    Briefly, the main character's father, John Hickam (played by Chris Cooper) is a site manager or foreman at a mine in West Virginia.  He's grumpy, favors his older, football-playing son, and distrusts his youngest son's strange habits.  Later in the movie, after struggling with his son to contain an interest in rocketry, he is injured in a mine accident and sent to the hospital.  Homer, the main character (Jake Gyllenhall) is forced to start working at the mine, dropping out of high school.  The father recuperates, and begins working at the mine alongside his son, but Homer is inspired to return to work on his rockets and leaves his father behind.  

    Homer doesn't seem to mind the job so much, though it is clearly not a good fit for him.  There's an aura of sadness (slow music, a shot of Homer staring up into the night sky watching a satellite as he descends into the coal mine), but it's not clear if we should be sad because he doesn't belong there, or because no one does.  When the mine workers are on strike, the abusive father of one of Homer's friends takes a shot at John and misses - he seems to be aligned with the union, and the union doesn't look too good when men like that are mixed with it.  There are good friends and honest workers among the miners, but none seem to favor Homer until he enters the science fair and becomes a town favorite.  

    At the end of the movie, we discover that John died of black lung disease about fifteen years after the events of the movie took place.  All of Homer's friends - and Homer - escaped coal mining, and that appears to be a good thing.  Clearly, people aren't supposed to want to be coal miners.  But Homer lionizes his father, in the end, and the movie seems to make his father into a kind of blue-collar hero.  Even though the father died of a work-related illness, he was well-suited to his position and became a hero through his work.  He was fulfilled in that job, and - we seem encouraged to think - many people can be happy as coal miners.  Even though not everyone wants to be a coal miner.  

    So, to summarize this into a pithy little statement: people ought to be allowed to choose what they do with their lives.  There is honor in everything, from rocketry to coal mining.  Honor comes from finding where you belong, and sticking to it.  Something like that.  

    Coal mining is just another job, and some people choose to do it, and do it well.  Unions are not part of this equation.  Neither, it seems, are corporations, really.  It's all about individual choice.  

    Sunday, January 15, 2012

    TRAPPED by Marc Aronson

    So, I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

    One of the reasons that I pursued COAL as a topic is a book called Trapped by Marc Aronson.  I heard him speak at the NCTE conference, and I had already encountered his great book, Sugar Changed the World.  He spoke for a few minutes about the book, and mentioned some of the things the trapped miners said and did.  (I remember him talking about the one word that made the difference for the miners - the thing that saved all of their lives and kept them all from dying.  "Democracy."  They voted on everything.)

    Of course, the funny part is this: the book is NOT about coal mining.  The people who were trapped in the San Jose Mine in northern Chile were mining COPPER, not COAL.


    Does this mean I need to change the topic?  I don't think so.  I think that the book and its ideas are still relevant, though perhaps less directly.  I think that the concepts of mining that I can take from this book, as well as comparisons to other mining disasters, are useful.  But it's funny, now, how this mistake in understanding (did he say that they were copper miners at the presentation?  If he had, or if I heard and remembered it, I might have chosen some other topic.)  helped me choose this topic.  I hope that the decision turns out to be lucky.

    I suppose we'll find out soon.

    Monday, January 2, 2012

    Filmic Thinking? - Key Points of Film as Research

    Coal Company thugs bullying a union family in Matewan

    I think it's important to notice that video (especially long, narrative films like these, and most especially fictional representations of actual events, like Matewan) can seriously manipulate - even mislead - our thinking about an issue or an event.  There are a lot of ways to construe this story, and a lot of things that you can say about coal mining and its checkered history.  Fictional films always present events from a specific perspective (a particular camera angle), and that choice always affects the representation of events.  Who is in the center, for example, in the above image from the film Matewan?  The sheriff (the guy with the cigarette and the gun on his belt, played by David Straithairn) is in the center of the frame, alongside the slightly-off-center Coal Company bully, who is speaking and directing the removal of these people's belongings from a Coal Company house.  This frame puts these two men at the center of the action, which will turn out to help with the next step, which is when the sheriff stops this forced eviction.

    But if you move the frame a little to the left, you shift the focus to the young man with the suspenders and blond hair.  He becomes an important character because of the way the coal company men mock him.  (What a great depiction of bullying in this movie - the scene where the two coal men are sitting at the dinner table with the kid, his mom, and his grandma, and making fun of his preaching, even pulling a gun on him.)  If you do that, the whole scene shifts to the effects it has on the townspeople.  Shift to the right, and focus on the stocky guy with the suit - who is the other Coal Company thug in the town at the moment - and you make this "sidekick" character suddenly important.  Is he conflicted about their tactics?  Is he seething with hatred and prejudice against "hillbillies"?

    The most important question, really, is this: who's standing next to that guy?  Who is outside the frame?  Who is left out of the picture?  And, why does the director - or whoever is deciding what goes into the frame - choose to leave these people out?

    As soon as you ask that question, you start to realize that the whole film is deliberately and carefully constructed from a huge assortment of film, and that every scene - every image - every moment reflects a conscious, purposeful decision.  Someone has a message to convey, and the images - their order, their content - even the sounds that go with them - represent an attempt to convey it.  Film is no accident.

    Roll that up with an understanding of bias and perspective, and you start to think about how important a director (and whoever is helping the director edit the film) really is.

    Watching a movie like Matewan as a kind of research is a lot like reading a novel about coal.  It's a made-up story from someone's point of view, really just meant to entertain.  Watching a documentary about the coal industry is different, but it still represents a carefully crafted message, delivered with a purpose.  It's easier to forget that manipulation with film.  It's easy to forget that someone is holding the camera, and that someone else is cutting and putting scenes together for the final product.  Someone is controlling what you see, and we must be careful that we don't forget that when we watch a movie.

    Watching Documentaries = Research?

    I think so.  I think that watching a nonfiction film - especially a credible one that uses the same (or similar) methodology as a reasonably good historian (although with a slightly political slant - which everyone has these days) - is a kind of research.  I'm not sure that I could publish this in Critical Inquiry with only film sources, but it's helping me understand the topic.  There was a nice use of music in this one, too, including a short interview at the beginning (and a clip at the end) of Kathy Mattea talking about her album, Coal.

    Last night, I watched an older movie about unions in coal country (Matewan) and a documentary that was mostly about "mountaintop removal" or "mountaintop extraction."  (Even the term is contested.)  It was trying to be incendiary.  There was a lot of tension in the beginning and the end, but the middle kind of lost traction.

    Here's a trailer for the movie Coal Country:

    There's a site for the movie (careful, there's music that kicks in when you go there) - Coal Country Site.

    I think one of the more interesting parts was the treatment of anti-coal activists.  People who are trying to fight the coal mining companies are getting threats, mistreatment, and the kind of thing that happened to Civil Rights activists in the South in the 60's (like, for example, standing in the woods next to a person's house, in the dark, at night, and yelling evil names at them - my favorite was "tree hugger" - as if trees don't deserve a good hug now and then).

    The most significant problems with mountaintop mining, according to my "reading" of the film, are air and water pollution.  These huge explosions spread coal dust for miles, and it is affecting people's breathing and overall health.  Worse, perhaps, is the runoff from rain on exposed coal seams.  Toxic chemicals are entering the water supply through this process.  Other, perhaps less serious consequences of this process are the long-term change to the landscape (fewer mountains and valleys, a flattened landscape where companies try to re-grow the "overburden") and the subsequent carbon emissions from all of this coal being burned and used to make electricity.  Landscaping is a significant concern, but it doesn't have the same "bite" as people being poisoned.  Carbon emissions are also significant, but that's a much larger and more complex problem.

    The other concern is the fact that mountaintop mining is a response to the dangerous conditions involved in older mining operations that involved underground mining.  Mountaintop mining is much safer for the workers (assuming they know how to handle the explosives).

    Sunday, January 1, 2012


    Watching this movie right now - starring a young Chris Cooper and a younger James Earl Jones.  About the coal industry in West Virginia in the 1920's.  Very violent stuff, very scary.  

    Here's the IMDB profile on the film:


    Here's a clip from youTube.  

    It's surprisingly pro-union.  It makes me wonder: would a movie like this be made today?  Would John Sayles be able to get a big corporate movie studio to put this out?  

    Pre-Writing - Thinking about Coal

    So, I chose this topic for a couple of reasons:
    1. It's a key energy source in an uncertain energy future.  
    2. It's a hot-button political issue, exploited by both Democrats and Republicans because of its strong links to the "rust-belt" swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
    3. It is plentiful in the United States.
    4. It has played an important part in American history.
    5. It is local - I'm from Ohio, a reasonably big coal state, or close to one (West Virginia).  I'm currently living in Illinois, which is a big coal state.
    6. It has a complex and interesting scientific history, as a "fossil fuel."  It relates to geology and paleontology.
    7. It has complex ties to unions and worker rights, because of the abuse of coal miners.  
    8. It causes Black Lung disease, an interesting workplace disability.
    9. It is a significant cause of air pollution, and a major cause of the Clean Air Act.
    10. It is big business, with several huge corporations exploiting it for large profits.  
    11. It helped cause and fuel the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and around the world.
    12. Barack Obama called the United States the "Saudi Arabia of Coal."
    13. Several mine disasters have happened recently, and they never fail to get covered, even though the coverage doesn't seem to lead to any serious changes.  These accidents keep happening.  
    This is before I've done any serious research.  I'm not sure exactly what I want to say about coal, or what "angle" I want to pursue.  Let's call this need for an angle a sense of "tension."  I'm looking for the conflict buried in this story - the thing that makes it a story, that makes it interesting to readers.  Conflict - or tension, since that makes it clear that we're dealing with a topic here - is the "stickiness" (from Murray?  I forget), the oomph, the guts, the gumption, the money, the gold, the payoff, the rub (Shakespeare) in the topic - is what makes the product worth reading/viewing/seeing/clicking through. I want people to enjoy and appreciate the final product, so I need this overarching sense of TENSION.

    So, what questions do I need to ask?

    Based on what I've written above, and what I'm thinking right now, here are some things that I want to pursue, at least for the moment (these questions help me begin and shape the research, but they do not confine or restrict me if something interesting pops up - it's a good thing if I change direction in the research because the thinking that I do in the midst of the research is often the most specific and text-based I can possibly produced - it often represents my best thinking about the topic, and needs to be respected as a voice that is more informed than the voice that speaks right now - why would I let the me of today, who knows very little about coal, give orders to the me of tomorrow or next week, who is in the middle of doing research about coal and knows a lot more?):

    • Why do we keep using coal to generate electricity when it is so dirty, dangerous to mine, and expensive to transport?
    • Why do people keep talking about "clean coal," when no one has been able to come up with a way to burn (what amounts to) compressed, hardened dirt?
    • Why is coal so common in the midwest?
    • Where are the largest coal mines, and who are the largest coal-mining companies?  
    • What is the extent of coal-burning electrical power plants in the United States?
    • Are there alternative technologies out there that might provide adequate energy if coal were abandoned?
    • How did coal mines and coal miners contribute to the formation of the large labor unions in the United States, such as the AFL-CIO?  What influence did they have on other unions and on the gains made in worker rights in the Progressive era and New Deal?
    • What role did coal play in the settlement of the Appalachians and the midwest?
    • What events - especially related to coal and coal burning - contributed to the passage of the Clean Air Act?
    I already know a bit about American history, and I've read a little and watched a few movies about these periods and these issues, such as Harlan County.  I'm not a total newbie about this, so in some sense this is false.  But knowing more about American history helps me learn more, and I chose a topic that I already know about so that the research will make more sense to me.  It's easier to do more research about something that I know a little about - that helps me know where to begin and where to dig deeper.  

    I think there are a few key questions that I need to keep in mind for developing the product:
    • What might make coal interesting to people who don't necessarily know a lot about American history, and don't care about the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio?
    • What is important about coal today?
    • What biases do I have about coal, and how can I try to remain balanced and open about these biases?
    • How can I limit the scope of my research?  What kinds of materials can I ignore or exclude?  What kinds of materials should I focus on?
    While I am looking for the "tension" of the subject, it might help to open my research as wide as possible.  With a broad topic like this, that could be daunting.  The final product that I envision for this is some kind of YA narrative nonfiction book.  (Ouch - an audacious goal, but darnit, it's reachable.)  So, it's not unreasonable to include music, video, movies, google images, TV commercials, poetry, and any other sources that might offer some kind of insight or interest.  While I might not be able to use an old movie about coal as a source, it might help me understand things about the coal industry that might otherwise be difficult or take more work to understand.  

    I'm going to think about this some more, and begin the initial research soon.  I think I'm going to start with some images.  I already have a few music CD's from the library that I'm going to listen to in more depth today.