Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland
The Nobel Laureate Playwright. George Bernard Shaw knew well the human condition when he observed that, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, ” and that, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Jeff Biggers new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, is a vivid illustration of our willingness to justify destructive behavior today by recreating a history that never existed in the first place.
His book has become all the more relevant given the tragic disaster that is continuing to unfold at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 25 coal miners lost their lives this week.
For many people, the coal industry in the United States evokes great nostalgia – an image of an 1891 booming coal town in southern Illinois or West Virginia, where the coalmen work hard, play hard and die young. It is imagined as a time when life was hard, but simple and quaint at the same time.
Eagle Creek, in southern Illinois, is where Biggers was raised in a home built by his family on land they owned for close to a century. Biggers’ family, like most in southern Illinois, knows coal and has lived in the industry for generations. In Reckoning, Biggers tells his family’s story, and while the story is quaint in some places, it is tragic and disturbing in many.
It is a history of environmental and human destruction that continues today. In ways, it has gotten worse. While fewer miners die now than in the early 1900’s, we still have companies like Massey Energy, owners of the Upper Big Branch, flagrantly ignoring human safety regulations (3,007 violations at Big Branch alone), that are put in place to protect workers from needlessly dying.
While cases of black lung are down significantly, 12,000 coal miners died of the disease between 1992 and 2002.
While emissions of some noxious gases are down, coal remains the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, contributing to 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The coal industry has figured out that underground mining is too expensive and that they can instead inexpensively, with far fewer employees, blow the tops off mountains, dig out the coal with massive tractors and push all the blown debris into river valleys.
The coal industry knows this all amounts to a big problem.But their answer is not to address the safety violations or environmental concerns, it is to fight them through public relations spindoctoring, as Biggers points out in his chapter titled, “The Short Swift Time of Clean Coal on Earth”: “‘Clean Coal.” Never was there an oxymoron more insidious or more dangerous to public health. Invoked as often by the Democrats as by the Republicans – by liberals and conservatives alike – this slogan blindsided any meaningful progress toward a sustainable energy policy.
The clean coal campaign was underwritten with tens of millions of coal industry dollars as an effort to rewrite the history of coal in the United States. And as Biggers points out, this is far from the first time big coal has tried to fix its problems with public relation:
“By 1895, newspapers ran ads for smoke-free “clean coal in Chicago and around southern Illinois, as the boom in coal-fired plant electricity was about to launch a new era.”
“During the war years in the 1940’s, coal boosters raved about the new process to wash, dedust and screen coal… the end result was a refined ‘clean coal.”
“In the 1960’s and 1970’s, ‘clean coal’ institutes and agencies and commissions and programs popped up like industrial car-wash fronts on every corner to deal with the sulfur dioxide emissions behind acid rain.”
“The coal industry hasn’t completely ignored its history. While they seem willing to forget their past mistakes when it comes to things like safety and environmental regulations, they haven’t forgotten how to use PR spin that is “clean coal.”
Biggers’ book is a reckoning in the true sense of the word. It is a well-documented accounting of what really happened in southern Illinois and serves as a tragic illustration of what the coal industry did to the many towns across America like his home at Eagle Creek.
Reckoning at Eagle Creek is an opportunity to learn – enough perhaps to avoid being doomed to repeat history.