Activist Biggers fights uphill battle against dirty coal

High unemployment and powerful industry make new mining limits unlikely

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.

Jeff Biggers, a civil rights activist and cultural historian, watched helplessly a dozen years ago as the hollers 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 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 median income, 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” is currently touring the East Coast; a Minneapolis stop, date to be announced, will follow the tour’s West Coast leg.

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9 Responses to Activist Biggers fights uphill battle against dirty coal

  1. Randall Maggard says:

    Boy, was that a bunch of bull. I would first like to know how Mr. Biggers past a geography course. The last time I checked Southern Illinois was about 400 miles from Appalachia. It seems today like everyone with an agenda in the media wants to claim to be from Appalachia. Yes, I’ll have to admit I was born in an Army Hospital in Germany to parents who grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky who brought me back to Kentucky to live for the past forty eight years. YES, I live in an ARC sanctioned county with a couple of abandoned underground coal mines adjacent to my farm. My daughters elementary school was constructed on a reclaimed Mountaintop Removal Surface Mine and yes I also work for a coal mining company.
    Back to Southern Illinois for a moment…Mr. Biggers ” Appalachia “, Mr. Obama’s EPA has exempted that area from the increased review by the feds for potential adverse water quality impacts and the new director of OSM thinks everything is going fine in the Illinois Coal Basin. ALL their efforts at stopping coal mining are now focused on West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky , and Virginia.
    Ah well, who really needs the facts…..We already know what sells books and newspapers.
    I would really like to meet Mr. Biggers one of these days since he had such fine things to say about my appearance in the movie “Coal Country”
    Well, I think I’ve said enough for now.

    Token Coal Guy,

  2. WV hollergirl says:

    Well Randy,
    It is passed a course- not past. That might explain some things about your comments.
    Randy- I saw the movie and “it is what it is”. We saw both sides and I saw your reclamation and your side in this movie. But the real story here is that people are getting poisoned and blasted by strip mining. And shame on you for telling your children that the pollution spewing from a coal fired power plant is “a cloud factory”. Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are getting sick and dying from burning coal -mining coal and the coal waste left over.
    Also in the movie you talked of the trees your company planted- like pine and Autumn Olive- guess what? Autumn Live is not a tree- it is an NON- NATIVE invasive shrub that grows in bad soil for soil erosion. Did you think that no one would know this?
    Who cares where some one is from, we care about our children and their future. Jeff Biggers knows more about Appalachian culture and history that you.
    The facts? You want to talk about the facts?
    Ok lets talk about the science studies from Dr. Michaedl Hendryx that says surface mining is making people very ill in West Virginia-and a woman living near and downstream is losing 10 years off her life? or the recent peer reviewed science study that says mountaintop removal strip mining is destroying watersheds, streams and forests and is irreversible and should be stopped now. All that doesn’t matter as long as Randy Maggard can afford to buy a new gas guzzling truck now does it? Forget our and your children’s future. You are just mad because there is NO defense for blasting and poisoning people- this filmmaker won’t s spin your coal company lies for you. that is all you are mad about. And it shows.

    • Randy says:

      WV hollergirl,
      I’m sorry for the typo, I know the difference between ” past ” and ” passed”.
      As for the Autumn Olive , the permit I was describing in the film was a 1991 permit and the planting plan specified at that time by the WV State Wildlife Biologist required and encouraged us to plant Autumn Olive. We are now spending thousands of dollars trying to prevent its spread into our new plantings of native hardwoods. I think its interesting that the flowering bush Judy Bonds is shown smelling in her backyard is an Autumn Olive. Since the film came out I have had many people say they refer to the power plant as the ” Cloud Factory “. By the way the only thing you see coming from the plant is water vapor, there is no visible smoke leaving the tall stack. I thought that’s what clouds are ….just water vapor.
      As for ” peered reviewed articles ” I think the lastest news about “Climategate ” shows how people will manipulate data and so-called ” Science”.
      Also , I don’t drive or own a ” Gas Guzzling New Truck ” I drive a 2003 S-10 Chevrolet that hasn’t had a recall notice yet…..the brakes and gas pedal work just fine”
      I know we will probably never agree but I “tried” to discuss the miners side of things……Mining companies are not big “Thugs” we are all just people trying to earn a living and do whats right. I know lots of ” GOOD ” people that work and own mining companies and practically all of us are like family ….we care about each other and the neighbors around us.

      Sorry you don’t understand,

      • Citizen Harry says:

        Yep, Holler Girl… the steam water vapor coming from that power plant is completely harmless. It’s the invisible annual fifty thousand tons or so of sulfur dioxide you have to watch out for. You can probably smell it though, if you ever drive passed it. It’s a legacy that will be past down to our children I guess. I hope that when our children look back into the passed, they see that we had the brains to do something about it, and not just accept it as “progress”.

  3. WV hollergirl says:

    Well Randy that sure is an Autumn Olive plant Ms. Bonds is standing near but she did not try to pass it off as a “tree” on a reclamation site as you did. The steam we see coming out of the coal fired power plant is not the problem it is the CO2, the SOX and NOX and mercury that is the problem. 24,000 people die a year because of air pollutants from coal fired power plants. Dr. Hansen calls them “Death Factories” and that is what they are – shame on you for trying to down play that- your pay check is poisoning your own children. NO matter what kind of truck you drive – it was purchased with blood soaked coal money.
    Yes we have seen the coal thugs in action on “you tube”. If there are good miners then they need to denounce the thugs I have seen rather than cover up for themas you are doing. Your silence is your approval.
    Oh please- you continue to show your agenda when you speak of climate change. The brain washed pro coal people’s money agenda is showing through. Science has proven that the past decade was the warmest on record. Your agenda is clear – you are trying to sabotage the movie. Your side is wrong and it is clear to anyone that sees the movie or reads your lies.

    • Randall Maggard says:

      Wv Hollergirl,
      I guess I’ll argue a little longer….. Mari-Lynn’ s sound and film crew rode around in my truck purchased with ” Blood soaked coal money “. I hope they can still sleep at night and didn’t get any of that blood on them.
      By the way I’m sorry but I can’t believe anything ” Dr. Hansen ” says …one can prove anything with statistics. Can you please get me list of the names of the 24,000 people killed by coal fired power plants. How does ones lungs tell the difference between SO2 from coal combustion and SO2 from volcanos. Better yet does the CO2 that you exhale with every breath not contribute to global warming? Better start holding your breath or are you going to buy carbon credits to cover that?

      Thanks again,

  4. Randall Maggard says:

    WV Hollergirl,
    Can’t we just agree to disagree and discuss something else.
    Do you want to call a truce? Can we get Citizen Harry to sign on also?

    Your Thoughts?


    • Citizen Harry says:

      Your last comment to Holler Girl says it all, so I guess no one really needs to continue arguing with you. I must admit, doing so is very entertaining though, just to watch what you write! You continue to dig your own grave with every word, so I guess anyone debating with a moron is probably not ethical. I had a feeling that you were educated, and worthy of debate, but it’s obvious that you aren’t. Yeah, I’d ask for a ceasefire if I were you also.

  5. WV hollergirl says:

    Well Randy- I hope they didn’t get any blood on them – but seeing as they are exposing coal’s poisoning of Us holler people- I guess it is worth it to them. One must get a little dirty when exposing filth.
    Your comment of “list of names of the 24,000” was greatly exposing your knuckle dragging mentality. That figure comes from peer reviewed science but of course you don’t believe in science.
    Not sure how many volcanoes we have in North America– but coal fired power plants are a plenty as is the mercury that is coming from them.
    But of course you don’t want to believe that because if you did that would mean that you are also poisoning your children and grand children for your comfort now.
    An honorable man would worry about his children -you don’t. You don’t care about people’s poisoned air below the sites that you are blasting. You just care about $$. And your ego. You know the new science studies (and old studies) prove everything we say that you are doing to us- yes you!
    Ms. Bonds was right- “is hard to get a man to admit the truth when his paycheck depends upon him not admiting the truth.
    Citizen Harry is right- your every post exposes the real you. And every one is watching.

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