Author: Coal Mining Past a Strong Argument for Eliminating the Fuel from Our Future

Jim Biggers is the grandson of a southern Illinois coal miner. He's also an outspoken critic of the coal mining industry. Biggers believes the environmental damage and human harm caused by mountaintop and strip mines warrant a fresh look at our use of coal for generating electricity.

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OPEN: Coal mining has long been a contentious issue in Appalachia. While generations of families have made their living from the mines, coal mines have also caused substantial environmental damage and human suffering. Writer, educator and community organizer Jim Biggers is the grandson of a southern Illinois coal miner. He's also an outspoken critic of mountaintop removal and strip-mining. In his latest book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, Biggers offers a personal look at the impact of coal mining on the land and its people and argues that it's time to create a national policy for a future without coal. The Allegheny Front's Karen Schaefer reports:

KAREN SCHAEFER: In 1999, Jim Biggers' 200-year old family homestead in southern Illinois was wiped out by a strip mine. He says it was a wake-up call to look more closely at the human and environmental impacts of extracting coal.

JIM BIGGERS: My cousins didn't want to leave, but sort of explosion by explosion, the broken well, the fly rock, the unliveable environment with dust, you know, just the general harrassment and people are forced off their properties, they're forced literally to give up their lives on behalf of some sort of outside coal company and their profit.

SCHAEFER: Biggers says what he found was that federal policy on coal mining has a long history in the U.S. It began with moving Native Americans off their land and explorations like that of Lewis and Clark to discover mineral resources during the Jefferson administration. Biggers says at Eagle Creek and many other Appalachian coal mines, using slaves as miners remained legal long after the Civil War.

BIGGERS: You know, something I don't think most people realize is that coal mining began with legal slavery, black slaves working in Virginia in the 1700's. And then, of course, that slavery swept across the rest of the country, that even in the land of Lincoln, in Illinois where I'm from, we had legal slavery in the coal mines there was a loophole that allowed us to have slavery there.

SCHAEFER: Biggers says along with obliterating his family's homeplace and farm, the Eagle Creek strip mine destroyed a secret black slave cemetery. This destruction of cultural and personal history Biggers believes is just one hidden cost in a long list of injuries caused by the coal mining industry. He says the damage caused by modern mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia ñ the process of blowing up mountains with explosives, then dumping the waste into valleys ñ is the most egregious yet.

BIGGERS: Mountaintop removal has not only destroyed 1.2-million acres in the carbon sink of America, but it has also polluted and jammed and sullied nearly 2-thousand miles of our waterways, the headwaters of so much of the waters of the southeastern states.

SCHAEFER: Biggers says mountaintop removal has also caused some of the largest forced removals of people from their land since the 19th century. He worries that most Americans don't think about the real cost of coal.

BIGGERS: So many people feel like coal is something that happens elsewhere. You know, it's so easy to flip on our light switch or turn on our computers and not realize that we're all dependent on coal, 45-percent of our electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. And there's a cost for that, there's a staggering human and environmental cost.

SCHAEFER: As the Obama administration continues pouring money into the development of so-called 'clean coal' technology, Jim Biggers argues that it's time to wean America off coal entirely.

BIGGERS: Until we commit to a coal-free future, until we say we could live without coal in the future ñ and it could be 2020, 2030, 2040, whatever. The idea is we have to envision a future without coal and then set up a roadmap and move toward a just transition from the coalfields. And make sure that there's a GI Bill for coal miners, that they're retrained and reeducated, that there's massive infusion of capital for green jobs and clean energy development, that ultimately the whole clean energy revolution that's going on now with our president also takes place in the coalfields.

SCHAEFER: And Jim Biggers would like to explode the myth of clean coal, which he believes is an advertising slogan stretching back to the 1890's, not a promising new technology to reduce pollution and curb carbon emissions. In 2009, the U.S. EPA promised to take a hard look at the scientific evidence of harm associated with mountaintop removal coal mining. This year it gave the green light to two mountaintop mines in West Virginia. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Karen Schaefer.