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Published: March 2009

The Price of Power

Flames from a coal-seam fire
Essay by Michelle Nijhuis
Photograph by Joel Sartore

A decade ago, when I moved to a small town in western Colorado, coal kept me warm at night. In the basement of my rented house lived an old-fashioned furnace, a heaving beast that inhaled frequent shovelfuls of coal and exhaled warm, particle-filled air through upstairs vents. The ton of coal I bought each fall was astoundingly cheap, partly because I lived near its source. Less than ten miles away, workers at three mines send a steady stream of coal into waiting trucks and freight cars, which rumble and whistle through the valley and beyond.

In some ways, this outpost of the global fossil-fuel economy is lucky. Aside from looming coal silos and a few roads across the mesas, the underground mines make scant visible marks on the land. Their coal is low in sulfur, and it is in demand by power plants eager to meet Clean Air Act standards.

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