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An Author's Incredible Environmental Journey After a Coal Company Destroyed His Family's Ancestral Home and Land

After a strip-mining operation obliterated the author's family homestead, he set out on a 10-year journey to examine the staggering human and environmental costs of coal.

About half of all electricity in this country comes from coal-fired power plants. And where does the coal come from? Author Jeff Biggers writes that coal is mined in 20 states in the U.S., but his newest book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, focuses mainly on one area -- southern Illinois.

Eagle Creek has particular historical significance, but it's the personal significance that drives the narrative of his book. His family's 200-year-old homestead and 150-year-old cabin were obliterated by a strip-mining operation. The experience led Biggers on a journey to fully understand the impact of coal on the environment and on communities.

Biggers' story is deeply rooted in cultural history. Mining companies have been destroying not just homes, forests and streams, but actual communities with stories, songs, heroes and legacies. Unfortunately, our love affair with coal continues, despite dire warnings from top scientists regarding global warming, the impact on human health from burning coal and desperate pleas from the people who live in areas of coal extraction.

Sadly, the Obama administration has only been fanning the flames with talk about resources for so-called "clean coal," a term that is nothing but industry smoke and mirrors. Biggers writes in his book about wanting to convey to the president what our addiction to coal really means:

I wanted our president to know that the strip mines did not only obliterate our family homeplace and farm: they ripped out the roots of invaluable historic sites and stories, such as a secret black slave cemetery that had helped to give birth to the coal industry and churned them into unrecognizable bits of dust. History did not only vanish -- it was covered up -- the same way a native and lush Shawnee forest was wiped out and replaced, through a faux coal mining reclamation program, with foreign grasslands, and the aquatic life of Eagle Creek disappeared with the toxic runoff from the slurry pond.

But dead fish don't tell lies. Nor did our ruins. As Mexican writer Octavio Paz wrote in his Nobel laureate address, the ancient past in his country never truly disappeared; it remained a presence; it breathed its spirits into our contemporary decisions. It churned out bits of cautionary tales that reflected our choices and ways of living today.

BIggers' book is not his only effort to deal with this issue. He's also created an original and groundbreaking multimedia production, "Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal," that is hitting theaters across the country. The play draws from his book, taking the experience of what it's like to live on the front lines of the coal battles to another level.

In a recent interview, Biggers discussed the motivations for his work and how we can move toward a coal-free future.

Tara Lohan: Tell me about the location of your book, Eagle Creek. What's the historical significance? And what's the importance to your family?

Jeff Biggers: Eagle Creek is/was one of the oldest forest settlements in the American heartland, located in Saline County, in southern Illinois. Tucked into the Shawnee National Forest, Eagle Creek has been inhabited for over 1,000 years. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson coveted the area's famed coal and salt reserves, which fueled territorial expansion to the West. Francis Peabody, namesake of Peabody Energy -- the world's largest coal producer -- sank his first coal mine in the neighboring county in 1890.

In 1999, the 8th generation of my family at Eagle Creek was forced by out by several strip-mining operations, and and our 150-year-old log cabin and 200-year-old settlement on the boundary of the federally protected Illinois Wilderness Areas were destroyed. This family tragedy set me off on a 10-year journey to examine the staggering human and environmental costs of coal.