Students Sit-In, Rally to Get Washington University to Cut Ties With Peabody Coal

If you're looking for clean energy inspiration, we've had lots of it this past week, courtesy of a phenomenal group of Washington University (St. Louis) students who are holding a sit-in until the school cuts ties with Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company.

For almost two weeks now, students have been holding a sit-in outside the school's admissions office, and then over the weekend more than 400 students, alumni, and community members rallied on campus as well.

Here is a first-hand account from Caitlin Lee, a WashU student, in her own words:

For the last week, a group of students at Washington University in St. Louis have challenged the presence of Big Coal on their campus and raised a critical question: "Can Wash U maintain its sustainability profile while being so closely affiliated with polluters like Peabody Energy?"

In a true show of student power, Wash U Students Against Peabody have held a sustained demonstration outside of their schools' admissions office for the past week, calling on Chancellor Mark Wrighton to end the school's relationship with Peabody Energy, one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Peabody CEO Greg Boyce sits on Wash U's Board of Trustees, and in 2009, Peabody donated $5 million to the school to launch the "Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization," a research entity housed in the Engineering School.

But student pressure demanding that Wash U disassociate with Peabody is mounting. Wash U Students Against Peabody have been outside of the Brookings Archway 24 hours a day and have been organizing alumni to weigh in, while also rallying the broader St. Louis community behind their cause.

Peabody is not only a significant contributor to climate change, but also has a particularly egregious record of perpetrating social injustice. Last year, Peabody spinoff Patriot Coal engaged in a long fight with the United Mineworkers of America in an attempt to shirk the pensions and health care benefits of 10,000 miners. And most recently, Peabody"s expansion of the Cottage Grove Mine in Rocky Branch, Illinois (which has included illegal logging without proper permitting and overtaking a local road from residents) has put the health and well-being of members of the Rocky Branch community at risk.

This isn't the first time the Sierra Club has engaged with Wash U around coal issues, and unless they start doing things differently, it likely won't be the last. In 2010, the Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles participated in an-hour long debate with another Peabody Energy executive in what was called "The Great Coal Debate." But the debate is over, and coal is on its way out, so it's time for Wash U to get with it and join the exciting momentum for clean energy.

Wash U has consistently been featured in the Sierra Club's Cool Schools rankings, and last year ranked #55 out of 164 schools based on their performance in the STARS report. But the students are calling into question whether Wash U belongs there at all if they don't disassociate from big coal and Peabody Energy. I hope they make the right decision, and listen to the voices of their students demanding a new direction, before it's too late.

I'll close out this column with a quote that will make any parent stop and think. At Saturday's rally, Washington University Professor Bret Gustafson told this powerful story:

"Every time I bend over to puff that [inhaler] into [my son's] mouth when he starts coughing and having trouble breathing, I think about Chancellor Wrighton and Holden Thorp, Greg Boyce...I'd like to have one of those guys come to my house and look my 7-year-old son in the eye and say, 'We're doing everything we can to make this air cleaner, young man.' Because he'd have to be a good liar."

You can watch Bret's speech right here.