It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.
When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:
Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head. Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater. But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.
My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era. No one questioned this attire. I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter. I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.” Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot. I remember being COLD.
School days were somewhat different. On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school. We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.
Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly. Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere? One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed. Or the answer may have been even simpler: the abundance of coal.
Inside, we were never cold. Why? Because heating with coal was ubiquitous. It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else. Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long. The result? Overheated air.
Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold. On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.
Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows. In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside. The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.
Where did all that heat come from? I never questioned its ultimate source.
I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth. But what happened to it above ground was no secret. More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal. The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.
Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result. After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags. Many of the ashes found their way into the environment. They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.
The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results. Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.
Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable. And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).
Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal. Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.
But coal still plays a big part in our lives. As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.” He added: “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”
In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal. So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.” Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.
“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else. She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.
Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal. Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps. In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.
Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash. It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites. The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.
Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash. But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?
As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child. I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.
And I wonder about others in my generation. How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?
I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.