Ngoc Nguyen, Interview
New America Media
13 March 2010
Editor’s Note: The Obama administration has
embraced the concept of “clean coal” as one prong of a U.S. energy
policy. But environmental activists say coal and the process for
mining it can never be clean. Jeff Biggers, journalist and author
of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek, The United States of Appalachia,”
spoke to NAM environmental editor Ngoc Nguyen about his family’s
history in coal country and why he thinks clean coal is a myth.
Why should we care about coal?
We all live in the coal fields now because when
you flick on your lights or your computer around the country in 48
different states, we are dependent on coal for electricity. My
life’s work has been to say ‘do we really know the staggering
human and environmental costs of that coal-fired electricity?’ I
think that it’s really important, even if you live in San
Francisco. Eight percent [of the city’s electricity] comes from
coal-fired power plants. That’s pretty small compared to other
cities, even so we are all part of the crisis of coal. If there
are two things my book debunks about coal, it’s that it is clean
and cheap. Coal has been the deadliest and costliest resource over
the past 200 years if we include the human and environmental costs
in the equation.
How extensive is coal mining and what are the
real costs to the land and our health?
coal mining takes place in 25 states, and over 60-65 percent of
coal comes from strip mining, which strips some of the most
beautiful and diverse forests we have in the country and fertile
farmland. Strip mining in Appalachia is called mountain-top
removal, where you blow up the mountain top, push the rubble into
the valleys, and scoop out the coal. [Mountain top removal] has
led to the largest forest removals of American cities since
mid-19th century. It has also led to the destruction of 500
mountains and 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests in America.
Meanwhile, over 24,000 die prematurely every year from the effects
of coal-fired power plants, according to the American Lung
Association. Coal-fired plants are typically situated in the
poorest neighborhoods of cities, like Chicago, and rural areas.
Within the coal fields, the coal mining communities—even though
billions dollars have been trucked and mined out of communities—face some of the highest levels of unemployment and poverty and
worst healthcare indicators of any county in United States. Saline
County [where my coal-mining family lived] ranks 98 out of 101 of
the least healthiest counties in Illinois.
Tell us about your family’s history in coal
[My family] was in Eagle Creek, in Southern
Illinois along the Ohio River. They lived in the woodland
community for two centuries, home to the most diverse forests in
the heartland. More importantly, it was an area inhabited
continually for thousands of years by Native Americans until
today. The coal companies began to push people out to get to the
coal seams. They literally had the permits. My family was faced
with living in a war zone. The coal companies were allowed to
detonate explosions of ammonium nitrate fuel oil and literally not
only destroy the watershed in the area and pollute water, but also
make life unlivable for people in the region. Eventually, you are
forced off your property. Eagle Creek has been wiped out.
from coal-mining people. My grandfather was a coal miner. He
suffered from black lung disease. Three people die every day from
black lung disease. That’s one of the most overlooked costs of
coal. Ten thousand coal miners died in the last decade from black
There’s so much talk nowadays about green jobs,
but are miners ready to give up their livelihoods?
There’s this mythology around jobs and coal
mining, when in fact the coal industry has bled jobs. In Illinois,
there are less than 3,000 coal miners. Nationwide there are more
people employed in the wind industry than coal industry. The coal
industry has not created jobs for us. The coal mining industry has
put a stranglehold on other economic development. That’s why [coal
mining communities] remain so poor, sick and desperate.
miners are like everyone else, they want livable, breathable
communities with jobs that can sustain them for the rest of their
careers. Our coal industry in Illinois peaked in 1918. For a
century, we have had a boom-bust-boom-bust and everyone wants to
get off the merry-go-round.
You talk about the idea of a coal miners GI
Bill. What do you mean?
I believe coal miners have made a unique sacrifice
in our country. My own grandfather suffered from black lung
disease. He didn’t die from it, but suffered from it. I believe
there should be massive investment in coal miners, including
training and education to help them make the transition to clean
energy jobs. For example, reforestation programs and other green
jobs, like building wind turbines, solar, weatherization. Let’s
train people to became electricians and plumbers, so they can make
our homes more energy efficient.
What is clean coal, and why has Pres. Obama
embraced this technology?
Clean coal doesn’t exist. It’s a marketing phrase
that’s been thrown around for 100 years now. Mr. Peabody
introduced that 100 years ago. We need to stop using the two words
together. If you’ve seen your grandfather get black lung, using
the two words together is offensive.
[As a senator, ] Obama came
to the coal fields of southern Illinois. There’s a whole coal
revival program going on in Illinois, where we’re seeing
scandalous efforts by the coal industry to get even more
subsidies. Pres. Obama like other liberal Democrats, bought into
carbon capture and bought into the mythology of jobs not
understanding the true impact of coal.
In Illinois, the Obama
administration invested $1.1 billion of our tax dollars into
[clean coal venture FutureGen], and it will take billions more to
get it running. Not one scientist can tell you that it can really
work. In order to capture carbon emissions, compress them, pump
them back into the ground, you have to increase energy production
by 30 percent. So we’re going to have to increase coal production,
and that’s what the industry wants.
The next frontier of coal mining seems to be in
China. What’s happening there and around the world?
In China, about 3,000 people died in 2009 in the
coal mines in accidents alone. It’s hard to really understand the
situation there. It reminds me of the turn of the century United
States before there were a lot of workplace safety and
environmental regulations. A lot of coal mines in India, China and
Eastern Europe use child labor in their coal mines and now that
continues to be a real concern. I think we need to point out,
China is also making great strides toward clean energy. There’s a
boom in wind energy and solar energy and panels. In India, New
Delhi has just announced it will be a coal-free city and switch
over to natural gas. We shouldn’t always look at China as a
boogeyman, but a partner for a clean energy future.
The anti-coal movement seems to be making
headway. It’s harder to break ground on new coal-fired power
plants, and energy from coal seems less desirable. For example,
L.A.’s mayor recently said the city will cut back on electricity
from coal sources. Where is the movement headed?
I’ve been optimistic. A few years ago, we were
using 50 to 52 percent electricity from coal-fired power plants,
and today we’re down to 45 percent. That’s a huge drop, and last
year we’ve had a 30 percent increase in wind energy because of
federal stimulus bill. That’s where Obama has been excellent, in
trying to find money for clean energy.
Investors on Wall Street
realize that clean energy investment is where the future is,
that’s what will bring down Big Coal .
You are a member of the performance group Coal
Free Future Project, which now has a show in San Francisco. What’s
Coal Free Future Project is made up of artists,
actors, writers and musicians coming out of coal field
communities. We’ve created a play, “Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of
Coal,” [the coal fields of southern Illinois] and we’ll be touring
it across the country.
Our attitude is until people in San
Francisco and Los Angeles—places that normally don’t have any
connection to coal field—see the cost of your lights and
electricity on our communities, you will never understand what is
happening and understand the true cost of coal. It’s as much a
human rights issues as an environmental issue. Our nation needs to
have a reckoning with our dirty coal policy and come to grips with
the true costs of coal.