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The Story of Coal’s Dirty, Deadly Legacy


A mountaintop mine in West Virginia (Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press)

Most of us take it for granted that when we flip the switch, the lights will go on. Sure, we write the electric company a monthly check, but otherwise lend no thought to the source of the power — like urban kids clueless that chicken originates someplace other than the freezer aisle of chain groceries.

But this month, an energetic author from the rugged, coal-laden hills of southern Illinois hopes to relay the message — utterly apropos in a country where coal generates nearly half the electricity — that a consequence of that national dependence is the outright decimation of the communities surrounding the mines.

[Environment1]Jeff Biggers, a civil rights activist and cultural historian, watched helplessly a dozen years ago as the hollows of Eagle Creek, Illinois — a corner of the Shawnee National Forest and his family’s home for roughly 200 years — were blasted away, the forested hills bulldozed under by companies intent on harvesting the lucrative coal seams beneath — a scene from Avatar playing out in real time.

“They’ve strip-mined your heritage,” Biggers’ uncle told him at the time.

The tragic episode launched Biggers on a decade-long examination of the history of the coal industry’s impact on local communities — not only the environmental imprint, but the effects on culture, health and family history as well. The result is “Reckoning at Eagle Creek — The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” released last week, in which Biggers describes the industry’s utter disregard for everything standing between it and the coal it wants out of the ground. It’s an apt study as the Obama administration advances its “clean coal” agenda.

“The old pond, the four plum trees, the sorghum and cornfields, the garden, the barn, and the one-hundred-fifty-year-old log cabin were buried in a crater formed before the Paleozoic era,” Biggers writes of his family’s experience with strip mining. “But it wasn’t just our family history. It also included a thousand 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 slave and coal miners in one of the first settlements in the nation’s heartland — all of which had been churned into dust in the race to strip-mine the area.”

All told, the miners hauled an estimated 960,000 tons of coal from his family’s property and the adjacent plots — “enough electricity to supply American demands for approximately four and a half hours,” Biggers writes. “That was the choice we made.”

The book isn’t all. Biggers has also adapted the story for the stage, taking the two-man show — “The Saudi Arabia of Coal” — on a 22-city tour that arrives this week at Busboys and Poets in Washington.** The story — about a strip miner and his wife faced with losing their home to the very project providing their income — features Biggers and Stephanie Pistello, a community organizer with Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based environmental group. Both are products of Appalachia; both are grandchildren of coal miners. The driving force behind the play, Biggers said in a phone interview last week, was simple: “How do we bring strip mining to people who have never seen it?”

It’s a timely story. For all the scientific warnings about the warming effects of coal combustion, the White House continues to view the fossil fuel as central to the nation’s energy future. Indeed, President Obama last week announced the creation of a new “carbon capture” task force charged with developing new “clean coal” technologies. The administration hopes to have between five and 10 new commercial facilities featuring these advancements up and running by 2016.

“Even if you disagree on the threat posed by climate change,” Obama said, “investing in clean energy jobs and businesses is still the right thing to do for our economy.”

Obama was referring to coal processing, not extraction. But the first, of course, depends on the second. And in the eyes of a growing number of environmentalists and human rights advocates, the administration’s alacrity to embrace coal — combined with the mixed signals from the Environmental Protection Agency on mining permits — likely means that coal communities will remain vulnerable to the ravages of strip mining for many years to come.

“We see this as a criminal activity,” Biggers said. “And if you recognize there’s criminal activity taking place, how can you minimize it [instead of banning it]? It’s their mentality that they can regulate this crime.”

Human rights activists are hoping that Congress will step in to eliminate the most destructive forms of strip mining, a method featuring the removal of all materials (rock, soil, trees, etc.) resting on top of the coal. (That contrasts with underground mining, in which tunneling allows the overlying land to remain intact.) Of particular concern in Appalachia is one type of strip mining, known as mountaintop removal, in which the peaks of mountains are blasted away and the debris pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which contain tiny streams representing the headwaters of much larger rivers below. Bipartisan bills introduced in both the Senate and the House would end mountaintop removal by prohibiting such dumping into active streams. There appears, however, to be little congressional appetite to challenge the powerful mining industry in a tough election year when unemployment remains near double digits.

“My miners and the folks who are working and those who are unemployed are very concerned about some of your policies,” West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) told Obama last month, referring in part to the EPA’s denial of some mountaintop permits. “In our minds, these are job-killing policies.”

At a much-watched debate on mountaintop mining in Charleston, W.Va., last month, Don Blankenship, president of Virginia-based Massey Energy, echoed Capito’s concerns. “The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country,” Blankenship said. “This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.”

The adverse health effects associated with coal mining have, of course, been known for decades. Biggers’ grandfather was among the tens of thousands of miners to die of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. Though the cases of black lung are down considerably relative to historic highs, more than 10,000 American miners died of the disease in the last decade alone.

But health problems are only one part of coal’s dubious legacy, critics argue. Coal communities also suffer from poisoned streams, the noise pollution associated with blasting and the barrage of heavy machinery constantly lumbering along local streets. In short, they just aren’t great places to live.

“Over 1,200 miles of waterways had been sullied and jammed with mining fill,” Biggers writes of mountaintop mining’s effect on Appalachia. “Blasting and coal dust had made life unbearable for anyone in the strip-mined areas. Wells had been busted and polluted with toxic waste. … The history was clear: Coal was not cheap, and coal was not clean.”

Backing that argument, Forbes magazine last November deemed West Virginia — the second largest coal-producing state and a hot-bed of mountaintop removal sites — the worst state in the country to live, ranking it 50th in “well being,” “life evaluation,” and physical and emotional health. That’s no coincidence, says Biggers, contending that the tactics employed by the coal industry all but ensure that coal communities will be one-industry towns.

“As long as they keep those communities poor, they can continue to plunder Appalachia,” he said.

For all the wealth that Appalachia’s coal beds have brought to coal executives and corporate shareholders, the money isn’t exactly trickling down to local communities. Indeed, West Virginia ranks 49th in the country in per capita wages, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, with a median household income of $37,989 — well below the national median of $52,029. Only Mississippi families fare worse.

Coal critics say that the message is beginning to sink in among residents of coal towns. Although recent protests have featured the arrests of such prominent figures as actress Daryl Hannah and climate scientist James Hansen, Biggers says the backlash against strip mining is being led by locals fed up with seeing their communities decimated. “We’re all children and grandchildren of coal miners,” he said. “The only people defending coal companies are on their payroll.”

This charge could extend to Capitol Hill, where coal-country lawmakers — backed by considerable donations from the giants of the coal industry — have built careers defending those companies, usually in the name of creating jobs for their constituents.

It’s an argument, critics maintain, designed simply to insulate the industry from stricter regulations on tactics like mountaintop removal, which actually rely more on dynamite and heavy machinery than they do manual labor. Indeed, while U.S. coal production is at an all-time high, the number of mining jobs has dropped off considerably in recent decades. Just 25 years ago, coal mining employed more than 169,000 workers, according to the Energy Information Administration. In 2006, the figure had fallen below 83,000.

“If mountaintop removal disappeared tomorrow we would start creating jobs,” Biggers said, advocating for more sustainable projects. Community groups, for example, are hoping to thwart Massey’s plans to level West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain, pushing instead for a wind farm they say will sustain more jobs and bring in more tax revenue for the state — all without destroying one of the oldest mountains in the country.

Yet Biggers is also aware that numbers and statistics, whatever secrets they might reveal, can never be as persuasive as real stories of human suffering in the face of privation. His play, he hopes, will bring that tale — his tale — to audiences sitting hundreds, even thousands of miles from coal country.

“We all relate to the human story,” Biggers said. “We all relate to a sense of loss. Hopefully, this can change more minds than all the statistics I could rattle off.”

At the very least, he’s provided something to think about the next time we flip on the lights.

“The Saudi Arabia of Coal” . Afterward, the show will move to Pittsburgh () and New York City (Feb. 27) before moving on to the West coast.

*Update: Both Wednesday’s performance in Washington and Thursday’s show in Pittsburgh have been canceled due to the snowstorm currently ravaging D.C. Check here for other cities and dates. *

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