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November 30, 2010

Coal Miners, Environmentalists Find Common Ground at IL Event

Jeff Biggers in IL The Sangamon Valley group of the Illiois Sierra Club held an event earlier this month that brought together two groups most normally wouldn't think to find in the same place.

Jeff Biggers, author, reporter, and recipient of the Sierra Club's 2010 David Brower Award for Environmental Reporting (PDF) spoke to the crowd about his latest book, "Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland."

In the crowd were many Sierra Club members and supporters - along with a good number of coal miners.

"The front row was all miners, three in uniform, along with the head of the Illinois Coal Association," said Will Reynolds, chair of the Sangamon Valley group and vice-chair of the Illinois Sierra Club.

Reynolds said it was Biggers' message that had the environmentalists and the coal miners agreeing.

"He made the focus of his talk on miners and mining - saying no one's looking out for the coal miners, especially not the companies. There are a lot of areas of agreement. By the end, everyone wanted to develop clean energy. I think even the miners saw the need for it - they want the jobs."

After the talk, the crowd stayed around to chat, with Biggers signing some autographs and getting his picture taken with the miners, who enjoyed what he had to say.

For Biggers, that speech in central Illinois further proved to him that a transition to clean energy is possible. Here's his response to me when I asked what he thought of the gathering:

....My show in Springfield turned into an extraordinary discussion. Coal miners in uniforms lined the front rows. Coal reps and executives sat side by side with farmers affected by longwall mining, residents in the FutureGen-targeted community of Meredosia, students, and members of the Sierra Club.
 
By stressing our historical movements to defend coal mining communities--always against outside companies more interested in profits and commerce than workplace safety, clean water or air, or justice, including the incoming coal baron Chris Cline, who intended to triple coal production in Illinois--and by asking the audience to envision a sustainable future through a just transition that did not abandoned coal miners but included them, we were able to have an intense but extremely informative and civil discussion.

One coal miner, who had come ready to confront the Sierra Club, gave me a hug after the event, and said, "This was fun. I can't wait for the next Sierra Club meeting."
....After speaking in more than 20 states this year with my new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, across the coalfields in Appalachia, the heartland and the West, I have become more convinced than ever that we can bridge the fabricated divide between coal miners and coal mining communities and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club by laying out a roadmap for a just transition to a sustainable and clean energy future.

The coalfields should be ground zero for any clean energy revolution.We need to aggressively push for a GI Bill for coal miners for retraining and placement in a clean energy economy, dedicate massive investment funds and assistance to clean energy manufacturing and energy efficiency initiatives in the coalfields, and launch a reforestation program in the forests and prairies.

My book, as I perform it on the road, shows how the epic battle for coal mining safety and fairness has always gone hand in hand with epic battles to preserve our lands and environment; that conversely, the abuse of the land has always gone hand in hand with the abuse of the coal miner, coal mining communities, and their lands. Strip mining strips the miner's jobs and the land.

I come from a coal mining family in southern Illinois, and have worked with various coalfields communities in Appalachia since 1983. Reckoning at Eagle Creek chronicles the loss of my family's historic homestead and 200-year-old community in Eagle Creek, in the Shawnee Forest of southern Illinois.

Coal miners, like all Americans, want to live in sustainable communities. 

Learn more about Jeff Biggers.

--Heather Moyer. Photo by Wes King.

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