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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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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.