The central plaza of Albania seems a cheerful place. It’s ringed with stores, restaurants, and bars, and bustles with activity, conversation, and strains of music. The air, though, is filled with a fine-grained dust that permeates everything, especially when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Tourists rarely go to Albania, and if they did, there would be no reason for them to spend much time there. If you do stay for more than a day or two, however, you begin to wonder: why aren’t the children in school? Why aren’t the adults working?

Driving into town, you pass a large billboard advertising ALBANIA: THE BLACK PRINCESS OF LA GUAJIRA. Behind the words, you see two possible interpretations for the appellation. One is the smiling faces of people, obviously of African origin, who seem to be representing the province or the town. The other is the coal mine. Under the land of Albania, and the whole region surrounding it, is coal. Lots and lots of coal.

Coal mining is dirty business. Underground coal mines pose huge risks to the people who work in them: explosions, accidents, cave-ins, and poisoned air have killed thousands of coal miners over the years. Just this past month, six miners died trapped underground at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Carbonville, Utah, while three members of the rescue team were also crushed to death. As the rescue attempts continued at Crandall, three more were killed in a coal-mine accident in Indiana.

Surface, or open-pit, mines pose different risks. Whole ecosystems are destroyed when miles of land are dug up to access the coal underneath it. In the Guajira, rivers and streams have been diverted, desertification has spread, and whole species — such as the iguana and the howling monkey — have disappeared or been supplanted. Too often, these ecosystems include people who are simply deemed dispensable by the mining companies, the power companies that buy the coal, and the consumers of electricity produced by the power companies. In Colombia, these are indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian people who have inhabited the desert of La Guajira for hundreds or even thousands of years.

And among those who benefit from their displacement might well be you.

The Cerrejón coal mine has been operating in the region since the 1980s, extracting more than two million tons of coal a month. All of the coal is exported, 20 percent to the United States — most of it to fire East Coast power plants.

Massachusetts is the only New England state to rely heavily on coal for producing electricity. One-fourth of its electricity comes from burning coal, in three separate plants: the Mount Tom plant in Holyoke, the Salem Harbor plant in Salem, and the Brayton Point plant in Somerset. (Although Rhode Island itself uses no coal, the Brayton Point plant, on the Massachusetts–Rhode Island border, is the largest source of pollution in that state.)

East Coast industries and power plants used to rely on coal brought in by rail from Appalachia and the southeastern US. But beginning in the 1970s, environmental regulations started requiring power plants to lower their emissions. The idea behind the legislation was for plants to upgrade their equipment and install scrubbers that would catch toxic particles (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide) during the burning process. But many plants found that they could reduce their emissions by simply switching to higher-quality, cleaner-burning coal, such as could be found in the open-pit coal mines of the western United States.

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