December 29, 2009

Chicago Journal of Commerce coal pollution editorial (1892)

My dad has collected some interesting items over the years. He handed me an original copy of the "Chicago Journal of Commerce and Metal Industries" from October 20, 1892. It's full of advertisements for odd looking products like the "Snyder upright drill," tidbits about industrial progress, and news of the upcoming World's Fair.

It also features an edgy editorial about coal pollution that's surprisingly relevant today. After acknowledging the improvements to daily life made possible by technological advancements, it tackles some of the drawbacks of coal power and the Edison company in particular.
The Edison Company's two tall iron stacks are the most colossal smoke nuisances west of the Alleghany Mountains. They smoke day and night, and they pour out a volume of soot beside which the joint product of any score of the worst smoking plants left in town is as nothing. The smoke is always dense and black, sticky and sooty.

The Society for the Prevention of Smoke formed to "abate this most grievous and impudent of all the smut distributors of Chicago."


Over 100 years ago the industry was already making "clean coal" promises.
The offenders offer all kinds of flimsy excuses and keep right on defiling the air and injuring no end of fine goods and fine clothing with vast columns of smoke that would make old Vesuvius blush with envy. The officials of the offending corporation claim that they have arranged to have smoke-consuming apparatus put into their plant and that some time in the future, all will be well. Let us trust that this is true. In the meantime, they continue to violate the law rather than go to the additional expense of burning anthracite coal, the use of which would at once abate the nuisance.

Pollution control equipment has improved since 1892 but things haven't really changed in the coal industry. EPA reports that mercury pollution is rising in Illinois because more plants are importing high-mercury Wyoming coal. Illinois passed strong mercury limits but the rules haven't taken effect yet. No matter how many promises we hear about clean coal, most companies keep operating the same old, dirty, inefficient plants.

The Smoke Prevention Society's conclusion is stronger than anything you'll see published in a modern Illinois newspaper, especially one with "Commerce" in the title.
Why does the Edison Company take this defiant position? Why does it practically quote the words of Vanderbilt and suggest that the public may be damned, for all its officers and millionaire stockholders care? Simply because they posses enormous wealth and the power that wealth carries with it, and can afford, or think they can afford, to ignore and trample upon the rights of the public. And the probability is that the event will prove that they are correct in their position. A few suits will be brought and pressed by the company that is trying to abate the smoke nuisance, whereupon a representative of this soulless, grasping corporate offender will "see" the proper parties and the whole prosecution will end, as it began, in smoke.
"How long, Oh Lord," will the people submit to the power and insolence of combined wealth?"

The power and insolence of the Illinois coal industry have grown dramatically over the past century. They have many more public officials who will not only allow them to continue spreading pollutants that cause everything from global warming to fetal brain damage, but they even convince taxpayers to heavily subsidize their industry without requiring companies to pay for the consequences of their "smut peddling." We're paying higher taxes to finance the privilege of being poisoned!

My next post will include the full text and a drill picture.