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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.
 
 
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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. 

"The rape of Appalachia," wrote author Harry Caudill in his classic, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, "got its practice" in Illinois. Commercial strip mining dates back to my state of Illinois, where the first horses and scrapers opened the first surface mines in the 1850s. Over the next 150 years, steam-engine shovels and modern draglines have stripped millions of acres of farmland and virgin forests, across 20 states in the nation, leaving behind devastated moonscapes and polluted waterways.

Despite the passing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which regulates the impact of strip mining and monitors reclamation programs, the radical strip-mining method of mountaintop removal mining -- the process of blowing up mountains with massive explosives, and dumping the waste into valleys -- has destroyed over 500 mountains, and wiped out nearly 1.5 million acres of hardwood forests in the carbon sink of Appalachia.

TL: Your writing gives a lot of weight to this issue -- it's much more than an issue of energy or environmental concerns. You write, 'Eagle Creek, like most coalfield areas, had been the staging ground of a collective act of historicide: the murder of our history.' Explain what you mean by that.

JB: "Historicide" is the removal of people from their histories. Strip-mining doesn't only strip the land; it also strips the people and their heritage. In our case, the more I investigated the destruction of Eagle Creek and southern Illinois, I realized it wasn't just our family history that had been eliminated. The act of historicide also included 1,000 years of bones of the first natives in the region, the modern Shawnee encampments and farms, the pioneering squatters and homesteaders in our family, and the slaves and coal miners in one of the first settlements in the nation's heartland--all of which had been churned into ashes.

And there were a lot of secrets in those ashes--secrets that implicated the legacies of our American heroes Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Tecumseh, and labor leaders like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis. In the end, I found this act of historicide did not only serve an as indictment on our selective viewing of history, but also unveiled an important cautionary tale of how we were repeating the same injustices and errors of the past, precisely because we had erased our memory of this history. Coal had created a stunning anatomy of denial in every generation, including today.

TL: How did the discovery of coal in the area affect the Native Americans living there? Later, how did the exploitation of coal intersect with slavery?

JB: Coal has been entwined in the fate of Native Americans since the French discovery of coal among the Shawnee in Illinois in the 1600s. After a trip to England in 1786, where he witnessed the power of the coal-fired steam engine, Thomas Jefferson set out to discover America's large coal reserves. In 1803, Jefferson instructed explorers Lewis and Clark to note all coal deposits on their famed journey; that same year, Indiana governor William Harrison carried out Jefferson's Indian removal policy in the Ohio River Valley, in order to gain control of the vast mineral resources, including those in Eagle Creek.

President Andrew Jackson concluded Jefferson's policy with the Indian Removal Act, declaring that the nation would prefer the improvements of industry over "forests covered with a few thousand savages." To launch this new coal industry, however, the first American coal mines opened with African slave labor in Virginia in the mid-1700s. Despite the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery in the Illinois territory, black slaves were also legally used to mine coal and salt in Eagle Creek and the southern Illinois region through the early 1800s. My ancestors, as anti-slavery Baptists, fought the slave-owning coal companies in our hollers, and we've been fighting outside coal companies ever since.
 
TL: Coal companies seem to have cared so little for their workers (as evidenced by what the unions went through and the changes they were able to bring about) and yet they've also had a protected status in so many places because of the jobs they have provided. How do you reconcile those things now? How are people in coal country feeling now that the jobs are scarcer thanks to practices like strip mining?

JB: As my grandfather, a coal miner who suffered from black lung and barely survived a mine cave-in, once told me, every mining safety law was written with the blood and guts of coal miners. We knew about the deadly effects of black lung disease, for example, in 1831, but did nothing until the late 1960s. Still today, three coal miners die daily from black lung disease. Over 104,000 American have died in mining accidents.

Our coal industry went through a century of homicidal negligence, for the most part. And in the process, it also put a death knell of sorts--a true stranglehold--on any kind of economical diversification in the coalfield regions. (Coal, by the way, is mined in over 20 states.) Over the past 150 years, our coalfield communities have been subjected to the boom-bust whims of absentee coal companies and the dirty energy market. The end result: Coalfield communities rank among those counties with the highest unemployment, poverty and worst health care factors, while billions and billions of dollars of coal have been trained and trucked away. 

As I often say, the only people who support strip-mining are those on the company's payroll. Coal miners and their families understand better than anyone that strip-mining jobs don't lead to any sustainable future. Since the 1980s, we've lost more than 60 percent of our coal mining jobs in most coalfield areas due to the heavy mechanization of strip-mining and longwall mining.

TL: Near the start of the book you quote Obama saying the U.S. is the Saudia Arabia of coal. What's his position on so-called 'clean coal'?

JB: Ever since his first trip to the southern Illinois coalfields in 1997, as a young state senator from Chicago, our president has regrettably bought into the anatomy of denial of our coal industry and ignored the true costs of our dirtiest and deadliest energy policy.

As the president must know, the marketing slogan of "clean coal" -- first promoted as "smoke-free clean coal" by Francis Peabody on the streets of Chicago in the 1890s -- has been trotted out for over a century, whenever the coal industry runs up against its dirty reality. We've used the "clean coal" slogan for modern coal mining operations in the 1930s and '40s, coal-to-liquid experiments in the 1970s, sulfur dioxide emission filters in the 1980-'90s, and today's chimera of carbon capture and storage technologies for coal-fired plants, which contribute an estimated 40 percent of our nation's carbon dioxide emissions.

TL: FutureGen, which is supposed to be a demonstration project for carbon-capture and sequestration technologies, is being billed by some as a necessary part of a clean energy package. Do you think it will ever be a viable technology? If so, what role will it play in keeping this dirty industry afloat a while longer?

JB: Debunked by energy experts as infeasible and prohibitively expensive for at least the next generation, FutureGen and carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) ultimately put the down payment of our coal-fired future on the taxpayers and burdens the government with potential accidents, leaks, disposal problems, and the enduring issue of mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. And putting aside the huge issue of peak coal, CCS will effectively increase coal production, no matter what. That, in itself, is a death sentence for coalfield communities.

TL: There is a growing movement now opposing mountaintop removal mining and coal power. Are you hopeful that activists can help effect meaningful changes around this issue?

JB: Nothing has motivated this growing and nationwide movement for clean energy and climate justice more than the tragedy of mountaintop-removal mining. We've been fighting strip-mining for over 150 years---a fervent movement nearly got Congress to abolish strip-mining in the 1970s. Today's movement appears to be even more organized and determined to end the most egregious human rights and environmental violation today.

We have seen the devastation of clear-cutting our nation's great forests and carbon sink of Appalachia and blowing up its oldest mountain range. We have met the casualties of absentee commerce; grieving parents who have lost loved ones to coal slurry-contaminated water; veterans and elderly who endure blasting, fly rock and silica dust; families who have seen their homes washed away in floods caused by erosion; streams poisoned with mining waste; boarded-up communities, strangled by a boom-and-bust single economy.

Whether we must turn to civil disobedience to halt the reckless and illegal blasting of mountaintop removal or the construction of new coal-fired plants, or lobby Congress to regulate coal ash and pass the Clean Water Protection Act--to end the dumping of coal waste into our waterways, and effectively halt mountaintop removal--or force bankers and lenders to stop funding dirty coal operations, I believe the movement must work toward a coal-free future.

TL: You write in the book, 'We all live in the coalfields now,' -- we are all part of the problem. If that's the case how do we try to begin fixing the problem? 

Coal is not cheap nor clean; coal has been killing us for over 200 years. The National Academy of Scientists totaled costs of coal at more than $62 billion in "external damages" to our health and lives. A West Virginia University report noted the coal industry "costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits."

According to James Hansen at the NASA Goddard Center, "Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points." Given the reality of climate destabilization, and the fact that nearly 40 percent of our CO2 emissions erupt from coal-fired plants, we need to commit to a coal-free future if we are to survive as a planet -- and that begins in the coalfields. 

Coal mining, which provides 45 percent of our electricity, will not end tomorrow. But coalfield residents, like all Americans, deserve a road map for a feasible transition to clean-energy jobs -- including a Coal Miner's GI Bill for retraining and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities -- before we reach a point of no return.

A "just transition" for the coalfields, of course, means more than rhetoric about green jobs--it will require not only a shift in massive investments and sustainable economic development, but a change in our long-standing policies that have allowed coal country to be the sacrifice zone for the nation.

Let me give one example: The proposed Smith #1 coal-fired plant in eastern Kentucky. Instead of a costly coal-fired dinosaur, a recent study found that a combination of "energy efficiency, weatherization, hydropower, and wind power initiatives in the East Kentucky Power Cooperative region would generate more than 8,750 new jobs for Kentucky residents, with a total impact of more than $1.7 billion on the region's economy over the next three years."

For me, the only way to move toward a clean energy future is to commit to a vision of a coal-free future. Otherwise, we will let ourselves be blindsided, as we have been for decades, with the "clean coal" machinations of the coal industry.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.