No American leader has done more to advance a clean energy future than President Obama. Nor has any American president done more to invoke a mandate for stricter workplace safety and environmental regulations.
And yet, ever since President Obama ﬁrst visited my native southern Illinois coalﬁelds in 1997 on a golf outing with a fellow state legislator, he has seemingly failed to grasp the staggering human and environmental toll of coal mining and coal burning on our coalfield communities — and ultimately, the nation.
Regardless of how cap’ n’ trade and carbon cap’ n’ storage schemes pan out in the far-flung future for coal-ﬁred plants, there is one indisputable truth about “clean coal”: It will ramp up deadly strip mining and underground coal mining production by an estimated 25-30 percent.
Clean coal, therefore, are not just words. It’s a death sentence for coalfield communities.
And every time our president glibly spins “clean coal,” he does not simply offend black lung-afflicted and injured coal miners and their families in the American coalfields; he disregards the mounting death toll from “real coal.”
Makes you wonder: Does President Obama’s glibness, for whatever reasons of practicality or politics, turn American citizens into acceptable collateral damage in a confounding defense of our nation’s dirty energy policy?
Even a cursory look into the history of coal mining in his adopted state of Illinois — the proclaimed “Saudi Arabia of Coal” — would inform the President that hopelessness in the American coalfields has been wedded to a mind-boggling death toll.
On the president’s first trip to the southern Illinois coalfields in 1997, as part of a golf junket, the coal company executives pounded nails into the green to keep the eternal springtime of coal alive. They played the nostalgia trump card, conjuring images of great lines of coal trains and tipples, and huge ranks of coal miners emerging out of the depths of the earth in an endless parade of employment opportunities. They heralded the coming of “clean coal” technology.
But nostalgia, like denial, is a deadly game.
No one on that golf course would have paused for a moment, pointed to a landmark a few miles away to the south, and recalled an explosion on the last working day before Christmas in 1951, when mining safety violations were ignored and a buildup of methane gas ripped through the nearby New Orient No. 2 mine and took the lives of 119 miners.
More than 104,000 miners in America have died in coal mines since 1900. Every day, three coal miners still die from black lung disease; over 10,000 miners, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, died in the last decade. In the meantime, the external economic costs of the Black Lung Program have saddled taxpayers with billions of dollars. The injuries and deaths caused by overburdened coal trucks continue to pile up.
Miners are not the only Americans to suffer from the dangerous pollutants, including mercury, that ﬁlter into our air and water from the mines. According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 Americans die prematurely from coal-ﬁred plant pollution each year. Another 550,000 asthma attacks, 38,000 heart attacks, and 12,000 hospital admissions are also attributed to coal- red plants. An Environmental Protection Agency study found that long-term exposure to “particulate matter of 2.5 microns and smaller (Pm2.5),” which coal-ﬁred plants contributed, “shortens the average lifespan by 14 years.”
When the Obama administration released a previously held 2002 study carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency on the dangers of toxic coal-ash ponds, Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward noted: “The EPA estimates that 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash with coal refuse. Threats are also posed by high levels of other metals, including boron, sele-nium and lead.”
Not that our president has ever been unaware of the deadly effects of coal.
The dinosaur Fisk Generating Station in his adopted city of Chicago billows out thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as 117 tons of particulate matter that led to hundreds of heart attacks and thousands of asthma attacks every year.
But the president’s disregard for the casualties of coal are part of a historical pattern.
The coal industry golf pros surrounding Obama in 1997 most likely didn’t tell the young state senator that their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had carried on this same conversation with politicians from Chicago for the past century; that “clean coal” has been sold as a slogan since the 1890s. That by 1905, virtually all southern Illinois mineral rights had been bought up by a torrent of Chicago speculators and coal operators, relegating the region to the vassal status of a supply-and-demand extraction colony subject to the whims of the senator’s own constituents.
No one probably confessed to the fact that the region’s coal industry had peaked in 1918. Over 100,000 miners produced more than 100 million tons in the early 1920s; a little more than 3,000 miners churned out 30 million tons today.
By the 1930s, according to a government report, those same Chicago coal companies had abandoned the region and left a picture of “almost unrelieved, utter economic devastation.” As one of the most depressed and vulnerable places in the country, the southern Illinois coalﬁelds had been given over to “hopeless poverty.”
That same sense of hopelessness, of being abandoned by a government beholden to the whims of outside Big Coal companies still resonates today.
Out of the 1,300 mines that had been opened in the state of Illinois, less than 25 remained by the end of the twentieth century, leaving the federal and state governments with a bill for billions of dollars to clean up the dangerous sites and toxic waste seeping into the region’s watersheds. Thousands of fertile farmland acres and lush Shawnee forests have been strip-mined and left to the unmanaged spoils of weeds, foreign grasses, and sterile creeks. Cancer and health problems soar. The coal miners, too, have been abandoned: Their town squares and schools are boarded up; their hard-earned property values have wiped out in the boom-bust cycles of a single economy.
This is the real cost of the President’s “clean coal” rhetoric for American citizens in the coalfields: Dirty coal has remained the merciless king, and the land and its residents must defend themselves against the daily onslaught of the monarch’s extraction for more wealth.
That is a historical crime that deserves a real solution, a clean energy future–not something we should discuss glibly as “clean coal.”