Jeff Biggers: Clean-Coal Myth Buster

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?

Today 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 country.

[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.

I come 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 lung disease.

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.

Coal 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 your message?

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.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.