Reckoning at Eagle Creek

THE ONLY SAFE PLACE for coal is in the ground. Despite the industry’s “clean coal” mantra, repeated now for more than a century, there is no way of mining coal, shipping it, burning it, or storing the leftover ash without harming people, land, waters, and atmosphere.

As a writer and radio correspondent who has worked in Appalachia, Jeff Biggers knows well the public history of our ruinous fling with coal. That history became personal for him when a strip mine tore up the land in southern Illinois where his ancestors had lived for two hundred years. On returning to the once-verdant site of the family homestead in the Eagle Creek Valley, he found “a lunar expanse of ruts and rocks and broken earth.” That wrenching spectacle provoked him to ask how much the pursuit of coal has cost, in human suffering and environmental havoc.

On the environmental side of the story, he mainly echoes those, from Wendell Berry and Harry Caudill to Jeff Goodell (Big Coal) and Erik Reece (Lost Mountain), who’ve written about farmland devoured and mountains blasted in the search for coal, about mining spoil dumped into streams, mercury and arsenic spewed into the air, acid rain killing forests and blighting lakes, carbon emissions destabilizing the climate, and sludge pools brimming with toxic brew.

On the human side of the story, Biggers offers much that’s new, especially concerning events in the coalfields of southern Illinois, where his grandfather worked in the pits, where strip mining began, where Mother Jones organized workers, and where some of our nation’s fiercest labor battles were fought.

The first victims of the craving for coal — or, more precisely, the craving for money to be made from coal — were the native people, such as the Shawnee and Kickapoo, many of whom had been displaced to Illinois from homelands farther east, and who were displaced again when the reservations they had been granted in Illinois turned out to contain mineral riches. The next victims were African-American slaves, often smuggled into the Illinois mining country under the guise of indentured servants. They died at an appalling rate, from exhaustion or malnutrition or hazards in the mines.

After the Civil War, the mostly white miners who succeeded the slaves continued to suffer from the same hazards — explosions, cave-ins, floods, exposure to damp and dust. In Illinois as elsewhere, the coal companies fought every effort to make the mines safer or to make working conditions more humane. They hired thugs and scabs to thwart the unions, bought off politicians and regulators to thwart legal oversight, and polished their image by spending lavishly on propaganda. When the coal seams gave out or the market dropped, the mining towns were abandoned by the coal companies, whose owners lived in Chicago, New York, or other distant cities, and who rarely, if ever, saw the lands and communities they had despoiled.

Such ruin of people and places has been made easier, Biggers notes, by the depiction of rural folks in southern Illinois, like those in Appalachia, as ignorant and lawless, and therefore as disposable. Nationwide, more than 100,000 miners have died on the job since 1900, he reports, and thousands more have perished from black lung, a disease first diagnosed in 1831, but denied by the industry and ignored by the government until 1969, when the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed.

The coal industry objected to those belated regulations in 1969, as they object now to reducing carbon emissions, to putting scrubbers on old power plants, or to leaving coal-bearing mountains intact. The history recounted by Jeff Biggers shows that Big Coal, like Big Tobacco and Big Oil, will never sacrifice profits to benefit Earth or humankind unless it is forced to do so.