What's the Matter With Midwestern Democrats and Coal?

What's the matter with the Democrats in the Midwest and the challenge of coal?

Have they turned their backs on the great American pastoral and our devastated coalfield communities and gobbled up the hook-line-and-sinker of Big Coal public relations shams and Big Coal lobby money?

Instead of making false promises of more boom-bust jobs in a heavily mechanized industry---strip mining strips jobs, using explosives and bulldozers instead of miners--why aren't Midwest Democrats recognizing the huge boom in the clean energy market and helping coalfield communities get their fair share of the clean energy jobs, and the investment funds?

Why aren't they advocating for a G.I. Bill for coal miners and former coal miners, to get education and retraining, and help launch the weatherization programs with electricians, plumbers, construction workers, or massive reforestation programs with the same bulldozer drivers? Why aren't we setting up a manufacturing base to build solar panels and wind turbines--not just use them?

Makes me wanna holler--hey, have any of you "coal-state" senators or representatives ever been to the coalfields, sat across the table of a farmer displaced by longwall mining, listen to the wheeze of a coal miner plagued with black lung, toured a stream that runs black with toxic coal waste, or counted the number of boarded up homes and businesses in the boom-bust coal towns?

Lord have mercy: Have any of you ever been in a scratch-back coal mine or stood at the lunar expanse of a strip mine?

At a meeting in Springfield, Illinois last week, I stood and watched farmers weep, recounting the loss of their beloved lands and farms--and their health--to strip-mining and longwall mining, and the unregulated dumping of coal slurry and waste in their aquifers.

This was the message I received from this crowd of Americans on the frontlines of the coalfields:

"We don't need no stinkin' coal mining jobs. We want our fair share of the clean energy investment funds and green jobs. We want a just transition for the small ranks of coal miners and our boarded-up coal mining communities, who continue to live in some of the poorest areas in the nation, despite the billions of dollars of wealth that has been mined and hauled away. And after 200 years of shouldering the burden of our country's boom-bust coal cycles, we'd like to develop a sustainable economy."

As some Midwestern Democrats turn their backs on the reality of climate destabilization and petitioning the EPA to lower greenhouse gases limits, their coalfield districts are literally burning--or sinking or getting stripped into despair.

Consider these little coal nuggets of truth:

Mercury Emissions: Here in Illinois, deadly mercury emissions from coal-fired plants INCREASED seven percent last year, while they decrease in other places in the nation.

Black Lung Disease: Despite the fact that it was first diagnosed in 1831, black lung disease continues to kill three coal miners daily, even in 2010. And taxpayers, due to defaults on loans by Big Coal companies, are picking up the tab.

Poverty and Health Care Crisis: Not only did the National Academy of Scientists recently find that the external costs of coal rack up a bill over of $60 billion, but the stranglehold of Big Coal on our coalfield communities has prevented any diversification of our economies, and led to mind-boggling levels of poverty and ailing health.

Check out this chart for the staggering low health indicators in the every coalfield county.

Saline County, Illinois, for example, the rich heartland of the coal industry in Illinois, and where my family lived (and worked in the coal mines) for nearly 200 years until our ancestral farm was stripmined, ranks 98 out of 101 counties for quality health indicators in Illinois!

Strip-Mining and Mountaintop Removal: Since the 1850s, rural Midwestern areas have been subjected to a war-zone environment. From the horses and scrapers that ripped at the hills and farms, to the steam-powered shovels that tore into the land and left pits, to the massive walking draglines--21 stories tall!--that scooped up two seams of coal at the same time and left behind meteor craters, to today's bizarre use of millions of pounds of ANFO explosives to blow up the mountains and hills, strip-mining has wiped out millions of acres of prime land.

More importantly, according to most studies, less than three percent of the devastated land has been returned to productive use

Longwall Mining: King Coal is destroying King Corn, as massive longwall mining operations churn up any pillars underground, leading to subsidence and damaged fields and irrigation, and the forced removal of American farmers.

Check out this video from the heartland of our nation's corn belt:

Over 104,000 miners have died in our mines; over 250,000 mines have died from black lung, over 10,000 in the last decade.

But over 60 percent of coal today also comes stripmining, which has destroyed any sustainable economic development, as well as diverse forests, farmland and waterways in the heartland.

Coal mining communities in my neck of the woods understand first hand that the so-called prosperity from coal mining is not just deceptive, but deadly---we remember, unlike the Midwestern Democrats, that the coal industry peaked in 1918 in Illinois, and since then, coalfield communities like southern Illinois have been subjected to the whims of the outside market, absentee landlords and coal companies (most of the mineral rights in southern Illinois were bought up in a land grab by Chicago and outside coal companies by 1905), and the boom-bust cyles that have left our region in poverty, with few economic opportunities.

In a line: Coal mining, especially strip mining, has kept out any other industries, and put a stranglehold on the region, preventing any diversification of the economy. Less than 3,000 miners are employed in Illinois today; our communities are boarded up, coal miners have seen their property values and homes get devalued and lost; schools have been consolidated and closed---at the same time, billions of dollars of coal have been mined and trained out of the region.

Where is the fair share for the coalfields?

Why isn't there a single monument to coal miners in Harrisburg, Illinois, one of the great coal mining towns?

Why are the Midwestern Democrats joining the barking dogs of the coal industry to support FutureGen and carbon capture and storage, which we all know is an infeasible chimera, a costly boondoggle, and a scheme that will only INCREASE coal production in the face of peak coal.

Just visit Carbondale, Illinois--its very name reminds us of a new challenge: The anatomy of denial. We knew about black lung disease in 1831, and the coal companies denied it until 1969, and tens of thousands of miners died in the process. We knew about sulfur dioxide emissions--which created Acid Rain--as early as 1861, but the coal companies denied it until the 1990 Clean Air Act. And today we know that nearly 35-40 percent of our CO2 emissions---as well as dangerous mercury and over a hundred toxins--come from deadly coal-fired plants, but the coal companies want to deny it.

Ain't no picnic on Mt. Carbon near Carbondale.

Coal mining, which provides 45 percent of our electricity nationally, will not end tomorrow.

But coalfield residents, like all Americans, deserve a road map for a feasible transition to clean-energy jobs--including a Coal Miner's GI Bill for retraining and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities -- before we reach a point of no return.

We don't need Midwestern Democrats lobbying the EPA to lower greenhouse gas restrictions, or pushing the Department of Energy to write taxpayer checks for billions of dollars in carbon capture and storage schemes to Big Coal companies.

Instead of being blindsided by so-called "clean coal" technology--a marketing slogan first used in Chicago in the 1890s, and trotted out every decade or so--we want our Midwestern Democrats to buck up and march in the forefront of a just transition for a clean energy future.

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books).