Jeff Biggers is the author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” among other books.
Jeff Biggers is the author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” among other books.
Jeff Biggers is the author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” among other books.

By Jeff Biggers

As Illinois finds itself once again in the throes of a short-term coal rush with devastating health and environmental consequences, it’s time to finally turn the page on the past and transition to a future with more sustainable economic development.

It’s time for Illinois to pay its debt to downstate coal mining communities.

Last month, a coal miner friend in Eastern Kentucky reminded me how his state was finally entering a new era, and getting past the hand-wringing, the finger-pointing, and the false arguments on coal mining. Led by bipartisan politicians, Eastern Kentuckians gathered on Dec. 9 for a high-level government-sponsored summit on economic diversification.

As besieged farmers lined up to testify against an expanding Peabody strip mine in Saline County at a historic Illinois EPA hearing last month, I wondered: Where’s the discussion from our political and environmental leaders about jumpstarting southern Illinois’ clean energy future?

Small but growing economic diversification projects abound among our coal mining neighbors in central Appalachia. In Williamson, W.Va, unemployed coal miners drew national attention two years ago for a solar-installation jobs project. The Energy Savings Action Center was launched recently as a website to help Appalachian residents save money and energy by promoting energy-efficiency loan programs through local electric utilities, which will put electricians, plumbers, construction crews and others to work.

Neighboring Iowa recently scored a $1.9 billion contract to build wind turbines.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality,” the famed visionary R. Buckminster Fuller reminded us from his office at Southern Illinois University. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

But the obvious fulfillment of Fuller’s new model — clean energy jobs — is sorely lacking in southern Illinois. In a recent survey on clean energy, every single new green job for Illinois went to Chicago or central-north areas.

This is wrong, and this oversight must change.

It’s 2014: Doesn’t southern Illinois deserve its fair share of high-paying clean energy jobs and a transition fund for retraining and investment to jump-start reforestation and abandoned mine projects, clean energy manufacturing and energy-efficiency campaigns?

If we can pump out millions in subsidies for natural disasters and subsequent repairs, can’t we do the same for regenerative efforts in coal mining communities?  If we can give out-of-state coal companies millions of dollars of tax-payer subsidies for equipment, why can’t we do the same for energy efficiency companies and wind turbine manufacturers.

It’s time to turn the state’s antiquated Coal Revival subsidies for out-of-state corporations like Peabody Energy, which recorded $7 billion in revenues last year, into a Coalfields Regeneration Fund for southern Illinois residents and businesses.

As the nation watches the ensuring coal slurry and mining problems mount in West Virginia, besieged residents in southern and central Illinois know all too well the ignored human and health costs of our state’s poorly regulated coal industry.

Ever since Peabody sank its first coal mine in Williamson County in 1895, southern Illinois has been strapped to a mono-economy boom-bust roller coaster beholden to the whims of the market.  From the high levels of employment around World War I, to the lows in the 1930s, when the region had the worst infant mortality in the nation, to the hard times of mechanization and layoffs in the 1990s, anyone remotely aware of Illinois’ coal history recognizes that coal-mining communities in southern Illinois have always ranked at the bottom of well-being indexes and need some form of economic diversification and renewal.

A breakthrough study last year found that the state of Illinois already loses $20 million annually to maintain the heavily-mechanized coal industry.

In the meantime, Illinois’ coal country has shouldered the massive health and environmental costs of powering our nation’s industrial rise to fortune over the past century, living in polluted and ailing coal-mining communities.

Enough is enough.  The local uprising against Peabody’s expanding strip mine in Saline County–the historical heart of Illinois coal country–should be a wake up call to the rest of the state, region and nation to lend their support for a long-overdue just transition.

If coal countries like Germany can produce nearly 60 percent of its electricity (as measured on Oct. 3) from largely decentralized sources of wind and solar and once coal-laden Scotland (where black lung disease from coal dust was first diagnosed in the 1830s) can set out an ambitious road map to become 100 percent free of fossil fuels by 2020, why can’t southern Illinois lead clean energy manufacturing efforts in a similar manner?

Let’s get beyond the old hackneyed phrases of coal this election year and start a new discussion on coalfields regeneration in the 21st century.

Or, as my coal-miner friend in eastern Kentucky would say: Let’s turn on the lights for southern Illinois’ bright future with new energy.

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