The Green Scene

"The computer and the lights you're using today in North Carolina are coming from coal-fired plants, and that coal is either coming from strip mining in the central Illinois basin or mountaintop removal," says activist and writer Jeff Biggers of the Coal Free Future Project. He's the author of The United States of Appalachia and co-producer of Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal — a multimedia play based on his new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek. The play will come to Asheville Community Theatre Friday, Feb. 5, as part of a 20-state tour.

Deep cuts: Mountaintop coal mining poses a number of environmental hazards, from contaminated streams. Photo courtesy Coal Free Project

"What our play is about is to bring the human elements of strip mining and mountaintop removal and coal mining to the stage, so people can realize it's not just a discussion or a statistic," said Biggers, speaking from his home in Illinois. For 200 years, his family lived at nearby Eagle Creek, till the homestead was destroyed by strip mining. Biggers and his collaborators — actor and filmmaker Ben Evans, and Appalachian Voices National Field Coordinator Stephanie Pistello — are all grandchildren of coal miners, making this something of a personal crusade for them.

There's no such thing as clean coal, Biggers maintains, calling for a new dialogue on how to permanently transition from coal to sustainable energy sources, perhaps using former coalfields and hiring miners.

"We are pushing ourselves to the tipping point of climate destabilization and climate change," says Biggers. "If we really look at coal — from extraction to burning to its final stage, which is carbon emissions — there's a devastating impact on all communities." That explains the group's mantra, 'We all live in the coalfields now,' says Biggers.

Not everyone shares Biggers' view of coal, however. In his Senate confirmation hearing last year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: "Coal is an abundant resource in the world. … It is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible." The DOE's Clean Coal Power Initiative provides financing for new technologies that reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

In the meantime, however, coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, contains toxins, fly ash, coal slag, and a range of heavy metals, including arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead, and mercury. About a year ago, a failed coal-ash impoundment west of Knoxville, Tenn., released some 5.4 million cubic yards of ash, flooding the Emory River and covering hundreds of acres of private property. The spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster. (See The Green Scene, Jan. 14, 2009 Xpress.)

"What we have to start talking about is the cumulative effect of all these toxins," says Biggers. "Often, companies try to get away with saying, 'See, we're under the accepted limits' of whatever [regulation]. I think even with coal ash, that's just not true. There's been so much empirical evidence [connecting] coal ash to birth defects and all sorts of other things."

The United States gets between 42 and 45 percent of its electrical power from coal plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And in North Carolina, that figure is about 60 percent, the agency reports, much of it provided by mountaintop-removal mining. This places our state among the largest consumers of mountaintop-removal coal in the nation.

Coal politics, says Biggers, transcend party politics. "The liberal Democrats in the Midwest are as much a problem … as any right-wing Republican from the South. Unfortunately it has to do with geography."
People live in Western North Carolina, he maintains, "because … those mountains really define who you are. If, one day, you could look up at the mountains and realize that by flipping on your computer, flipping on your light switch, you are destroying them — that there would literally be an explosion, and you would lose all of Madison County — how would you feel? That's sort of how we feel in southern Illinois: You literally are destroying what we love — and who we are."

Biggers aims to take his message all the way to the top: "I want to tell my president and my members of Congress, 'Hey, you really need to understand the history of coal mining. It began with the removal of Native Americans; it began with black slavery. It has really devastated us environmentally. It has devastated my region economically, and now you are pushing us to the tipping point of climate change."

Freelance writer ilana Mignon lives in Asheville.

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