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Closer Than Matewan

Jeff Biggers explores the devastation coal has wrought on southern Illinois—and his own family.



As a boy in southern Illinois, Jeff Biggers used to play with his grandfather's "coal tattoo": an explosion in a local mine had embedded small pieces of coal all over the older man's face.

Biggers, now 46, grew up to become a writer and performer with an activist slant. But while focusing on such issues as homelessness in New York City and the rights of indigenous communities in Mexico and the southwestern U.S., he remained largely unaware of coal's role in shaping the economic and environmental destiny of his native region.

In 1999 he was living among the Tarahumara in Mexico's Sierra Madre when he got a letter from an uncle urging him to return to his roots. A coal company was in the process of strip-mining the "holler," land along Eagle Creek and surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest that had been in Biggers's family from 1805 until the last of it was sold in 1998.

"My uncle said, 'While you were in Mexico, they just strip-mined your family heritage,'" says Biggers.

The letter set him on a mission to understand the history of his family, and beyond it the history of coal in Illinois. What he found was a story of "economic and environmental devastation" wrought by a single-industry economy "based on the boom and bust cycles of coal that kept out any sustainable development."

Biggers spent six more months with the Tarahumara—an experience he'd describe intimately in the 2006 book In the Sierra Madre—and returned to Eagle Creek. He spent some seven years researching the history of coal in Illinois and the lives of eight generations of his family on the obliterated homestead. He learned, for instance, that his grandfather had belonged to the Progressive Miners of America, a reform group that in 1932 broke away from the United Mine Workers in southern Illinois and did bloody battle with union loyalists.

Writing the book took Biggers another three years, but this week Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland was published by Nation Books. It appears at a time when American politicians and industry leaders are touting an energy future based on "clean coal." Biggers, along with most major environmental groups, says there's no such thing.

The dangers and environmental damage associated with the coal industry are in many people's minds synonymous with Appalachia, thanks to the region's storied labor struggles, activism against mountaintop-removal mining, and recent accidents like the 2006 Sago mine explosion in West Virginia. (Mountaintop-removal mining is the subject of Topless America, a documentary by Columbia College grad Jarred "Parson Brown" Hill and Kat Wallace that's screening after Biggers reads this Saturday at No Exit.) But Reckoning tells us that the story of coal in America begins in Illinois in the 1600s, when French traders discovered it near what's now Peoria.

Two centuries later more coal was discovered some 60 miles southwest of Chicago, and mining began in earnest. In 1890 Francis Peabody, who Biggers IDs as "this liberal Chicago Democrat," founded the Peabody Coal Company here, and visitors to Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition were wowed by a demonstration of coal-powered electric lighting. In 1903 and 1924 the Fisk and Crawford coal-burning power plants were built in Pilsen and Little Village. They're still in operation—and the objects of fierce opposition by environmental and public health advocates.

Illinois' northern coal reserves were tapped out by the end of the 19th century, and the industry shifted to southern Illinois. "They used up all the coal around Chicago, so they headed to our neck of the woods, and by 1905 almost all southern Illinois mineral rights were bought up by coal barons from Chicago, Saint Louis, and New York," Biggers says. "A century later we're still a vassal colony to the interests and whims of the electricity needs of Chicago."

Illinois remained the heart of the nation's coal industry for decades. But the Clean Air Act of 1990 made the state's high-sulfur coal nearly unusable. Many of its mines closed, and the number of mining jobs plummeted from about 15,000 to fewer than 4,000.

But now Illinois is at the forefront of the push for clean coal. In September the Department of Energy signed an agreement with the private-public FutureGen alliance to continue design work on what would supposedly be the "world's first near-zero-emissions coal plant," a $2 billion project in Mattoon. Washington will decide this year whether to build it.

FutureGen's definition of clean has to do with carbon dioxide emissions, which it wants to store underground. Critics say the technology is unproven, would require power plants to be built in places, however remote, whose geology permitted sequestration of CO2 or the compression and transportation of CO2 to those sites, and wouldn't make coal "clean" anyway: it wouldn't end strip-mining or slicing the tops off mountains.

Though Biggers has been published by the Washington Post, NPR, Salon, the Atlantic, and other prominent media outlets, he considers himself more of an advocate than journalist. His frequent speeches on the issues that preoccupy him are dramatic to the point of becoming performance. And in the wake of the Copenhagen climate summit he helped form a group, the Coal Free Future Project, that will soon launch a national tour with a multimedia production, Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal, based on his book. It tells the story of a strip miner and his pregnant wife whose homestead at Eagle Creek is threatened by mountaintop removal. The other performers are Ben Evans and Stephanie Pistello, and the show's music was written by Ben Sollee. Like Biggers, Pistello and Sollee are descended from coal miners. The tour comes to Chicago in March.

Claims about clean coal, Biggers says, are nothing new. "Peabody was taking out ads in the Chicago Tribune for smoke-free clean coal a hundred years ago," Biggers says. "When we look at history, virtually every time the coal industry has confronted a problem, has been called on the carpet for disastrous techniques, environmental havoc, and climate change—every step of the way they trot out the clean-coal mantra."

He considers himself an Obama fan, but laments the president's support of the coal industry. While campaigning for the U.S. Senate, and again while serving in it, Obama pledged support for Illinois coal, and in 2007 he introduced a bill promoting a project to liquefy coal as an alternative to oil.

"This smart young man came down from Chicago to southern Illinois, and he was really sold the bill of goods that the Illinois basin is the Saudi Arabia of coal," says Biggers. "The whole coal politics really transcends party politics—it's about geography. Liberal Democrats are as in bed with coal as right-wing Republicans from Kentucky."

Biggers admires Dick Durbin's stance on many issues, including the Iraq war, but he's irritated by his advocacy of the FutureGen plant and "clean coal" in general. Under President Bush, the Department of Energy had pulled funding from the embattled Mattoon project in 2008 as costs ballooned. But Durbin continued to push for it, and eventually the Department of Energy restored R & D funding.

Politicians tend to support initiatives that would create jobs back home, but opponents argue that Illinois would get more economic stimulus from so-called green jobs—at new plants to build wind turbines and solar panels in Illinois—than from reopening Illinois mines. Biggers thinks Obama and other coal backers are caught up in "nostalgia" for the proud days of union mining in Illinois, and points out that in reality modern mechanized mining techniques require minimal manpower. Most remaining Illinois mines are nonunion, and Biggers expects the owners of new or reopened mines to fight union organizers tooth and nail. He advocates a kind of "GI bill for coal miners," with government subsidies to help them find jobs in clean energy sectors.

The idea behind the Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal tour "is to get environmentalists together with people from coal-mining backgrounds to see they have a common interest," says Biggers. "From the poisonous impact of coal-fired plants and coal ash on our daily lives to the massive health care and environmental costs of extracting coal to the role of carbon emissions from coal-fired plants in pushing our planet to a tipping point in climate destabilization—everyone in Chicago and the country must accept the fact that we all live in the coalfields now."   v

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