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INTERVIEW: Author and anti-coal activist Jeff Biggers talks about the ‘coal roots’ of Black History Month and will be speaking Friday in Harlem

Jeff Friedrich Feb 25, 2010

By Jeff Friedrich

Jeff Biggers is a journalist, cultural historian and prolific blogger. He has written extensively on the impact of coal mining on Appalachian communities and is a vocal critic of the so-called “clean coal” technologies. On Friday, Feb. 26, he will be speaking at the Harlem Arts Salon about his new book,  Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, and about the “coal roots” of Black History Month. Mozambican jazz singer and recording artist Chude Mondlane will also perform.

Jeff Friedrich: Could you briefly introduce Appalachia to the New Yorkers who haven’t left the city in a while, and tell us why we should care about what’s happening there? 

Jeff Biggers: The residents of New York City participate in one of the most egregious environmental and human rights disasters in U.S. history — mountaintop removal mining methods in Appalachia that have literally blown up nearly 500 mountains, wiped out 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests and sullied 2,000 miles of streams with toxic waste. Scores of communities have been depopulated, left in ruin and saddled with unsparing poverty. Relying on heavy machinery and explosives, mountaintop removal operations have also stripped the region of needed jobs.

More than 240,000 tons of coal from mountaintop removal are consumed to produce electricity for New York every year. The energy grid that illuminates New York City includes 13 coal-fired power plants in 11 New York State counties that burn mountaintop removal coal.

JF: What would you say to people around the country who continue to promote coal as a cheap source of electricity?

JB: If Americans knew the true cost of coal, they wouldn’t accept it in such a glib way.  Given the reality of climate destabilization, we all live in the coalfields now. As Dr. James Hansen at the NASA Goddard Center has noted: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible — if we do not rapidly slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades. Coal is not only the largest fossil fuel reservoir of carbon dioxide, it is the dirtiest fuel. Coal is polluting the world’s oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals.

Keep in mind: Coal is not cheap nor clean; coal is killing us — and has, for over 200 years. 

Over 104,000 Americans and immigrants have died in coal mining accidents; still today, three coal miners die daily from black lung disease; 10,000 miners have died in the last decade. Millions of acres of hardwood forests and fertile farmlands have been stripmined into oblivion; pioneering rural communities have been plundered and left in utter poverty, joblessness and despair. Over half of the American populace lives within an hour of a toxic coal ash dump. According to a new study released this month by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal “contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases already affecting large portions of the U.S. population.”

A study released by the National Academy of Scientists in October found that the “hidden costs” of coal amount to more than $62 billion in “external damages” to our health and lives. According to a West Virginia University report this year, the coal industry “costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits.”

JF:  You mentioned NASA scientist James Hansen’s call for a dramatic reduction of coal fired-power plants as a means to averting catastrophic climate change. Given that more than 40 percent of U.S. energy still comes from coal, do you think that is a viable solution? How would we ensure people living in Appalachia have alternative jobs or funds to assist a just transition?

JB: Coal mining, which provides roughly 45 percent of our electricity, will not end tomorrow. I understand and accept that. But, I believe coal miners and coalfield residents, and all Americans, deserve a clear road map for a feasible transition to clean energy jobs and sources, including a Coal Miner’s G.I. Bill for retraining, and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities, before we reach a point of no return.

I believe our fiduciary responsibility to our children, and our nation’s future, not only demands a new way of thinking and generating our electricity, but also affords us a great opportunity for economic and social revitalization. 

Take eastern Kentucky, for example, and the current debate over the proposed Smith # 1 coal-fired plant for the region. Instead of chaining our future to a costly and deadly coal-fired future, a recent study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitans Studies found that a clean energy combination of energy efficiency, weatherization, hydropower and wind power initiatives in the East Kentucky Power Cooperative  region would generate more than 8,750 new jobs for Kentucky residents, with a total impact of more than $1.7 billon on the region’s economy over the next three years.  This alternative approach would meet the energy needs of East Kentucky Power Cooperative customers at a lower cost than the proposed coal plant.

It’s time to free the coalfields from their burden. It’s time to commit to a clean energy revolution. It’s time to imagine a coal free future.

JF: Could you talk about some of the anti-coal mining civil disobedience occurring in Appalachia? Do you think we are going to see more activism?   

JB: As part of a broader effort to raise awareness of the tragedy of mountaintop removal, and work in alliance with state and federal legislative initiatives to abolish reckless strip-mining, coalfield residents have turned to nonviolent civil disobedience for decades. Over the past 18 months, a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience — a true coalfield uprising — has grown leaps and bounds in Appalachia. Joined by direct action groups like Rainforest Action Network and Climate Ground Zero, and homegrown Appalachian groups like Mountain Justice, besieged coalfield residents are simply fed up with the stammering and regulatory inaction, and willing to put their lives on the line to stop this egregious human rights and environmental violation.

JF: Your book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek, is a personal story about coal mining. How do you place the story of your family into the larger context of coal mining?

JB: In 1999, my family’s 150-year-old log cabin and 200-year-old settlement at Eagle Creek, on the boundary of the federally protected Illinois Wilderness Areas in southern Illinois, were destroyed by several strip-mining operations. My grandfather had been an underground miner in the region. He suffered from black lung disease and barely survived a cave-in.

The strip mines did not only obliterate our family homeplace and farm; they ripped out the roots of invaluable historic sites and stories, such as a secret black slave cemetery that had helped to give birth to the coal industry, and churned them into unrecognizable bits of dust. History did not only vanish; it was covered up; the same way a native and lush Shawnee forest was wiped out and replaced through a faux coal mining reclamation program with foreign grasslands, and the aquatic life of Eagle Creek itself disappeared with the toxic runoff from the sediment pond.

I think the story of Eagle Creek is cautionary tale for the rest of the nation; namely, commerce and the profits of outside coal companies have always been placed ahead of the welfare of the residents and land for the past two centuries; that the abuse of the people has always gone hand in hand with the abuse of the land.

“The rape of Appalachia,” wrote author Harry Caudill in his classic, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, “got its practice” in Illinois. Commercial strip mining dates back to eastern Illinois, where the first horses and scrapers opened the first surface mines in the 1850s. Over the next 150 years, steam-engine shovels and modern draglines have stripped millions of acres of farm land and virgin forests, across 20 states in the nation, leaving behind devastated moonscapes and polluted waterways. Despite the passing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which regulates the impact of strip mining and monitors reclamation programs, the radical strip mining method of mountaintop removal mining — the process of blowing up mountains with massive explosives, and dumping the waste into valleys — has destroyed over 500 mountains, and wiped out 1.5 million acres of hardwood forests in the carbon sink of Appalachia.

JF: You have a diverse work background having worked as an assistant to Senator George McGovern and as an aide to Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who was a liberal clergyman in New York City and prominent antiwar activist. How did these experiences lead into your writing career?

JB: In the 1980s, I worked as a community organizer and policy analyst with Coffin at the Riverside Church on issues of homelessness and housing, as well as immigration and foreign policy issues. Whether it is in the coalfields of Appalachia and the heartland, or the streets of New York City, or abroad, it all comes down to an issue of human and civil rights for me. As a writer and an activist, I share author Grace Paley’s belief that we have no choice but to work for “the still small possibility of justice.”

JF: You are speaking about your book at the Harlem Arts Salon this Friday. Why is the history of coal mining relevant to Black History Month?

JB: Black History Month was launched by Carter Woodson, the great African-American historian, who worked for several years in the West Virginia coal mines. In fact, Woodson always recalled how his love for black history was first inspired by listening to the stories of African-American miners, their epic labor battles, and the largely unknown role of black miners in the earliest American mining experience.

While the first American coal mines opened with African slave labor in Virginia in the mid-1700s, the French imported 500 slaves from Haiti to mine coal and lead in Illinois in 1702. Despite the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery in the Illinois territory, black slaves were also used to mine coal and salt in southern Illinois region.

Jeff Biggers will be reading from his book and talking about the “coal roots” of Black History Month Friday, Feb. 26, 8pm at Harlem Arts Salon, 1925 Seventh Avenue, 7L, (between 116th and 117 Streets) in Manhattan. For more information, visit harlemartssalon.com or call 212-749-7771. Admission is $10.

For more information on the relationship between coal mining and Black History Month, read Biggers’ article, “Stripmining Black HIstory Month,” posted Jan. 29 at The Huffington Post.  Follow Biggers online at jeffrbiggers.com

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