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Heartland Coal Crisis: Illinois Bankrolls Big Coal School Program? Interview With Eco-Justice Leader Lan Richart

Posted: 06/22/11 05:42 PM ET

At ground zero in the nation's clean energy fight, The Heartland Coal Crisis will be a periodical series of blogs on coal and energy issues facing states in the Midwest, with a special focus on the Heartland Coalfield Alliance campaign for a just transition to a clean energy and sustainable economy.

While a national campaign succeeded last month in getting publisher Scholastic, Inc. to nix their unabashedly Big Coal-cheering "The United States of Energy" curriculum, few people realized some states -- such as Kentucky -- are quietly using taxpayer funds to subsidize similar coal industry-composed materials and websites for children.

In a state where child laborers lost their lives in the coal mines as Peabody Coal took out ads for "clean coal" in the 1890s, Illinois is no exception -- even as the state slashes the education budget for schools.

As part of the whopping $145 million budget for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's Office of Coal Development -- a marketing and development slush fund, for the most part, to keep the state's "coal revival" in gear -- Illinois has been pushing a misleading and downright shameless Big Coal-approved curriculum and educational activities on children and their teachers around the state.

Forget dime bag hustlers on the playground: The state spends thousands of dollars a year to distribute small bags of coal -- unit price: 10,000 bags @.25 per bag -- to Illinois children, even as mercury rates soar, and coal burning cities like Chicago rank among the highest in related asthma and health care problems.

Here's one quick example: While Illinois is the birthplace of industrial strip-mining, where thousands of acres of the best farm lands and diverse Shawnee National Forests have been left in ruins, DCEO's website for kids proclaims: "Reclamation is returning the land to the way it was or better than before mining." A little cartoon figure adds a kicker:

2011-06-22-Picture4.png
Courtesy: Illinois Department of Commerce


At its annual Coal Education Conference at Rend Lake Resort last week, the state picked up the tab for a four-day Big Coal junket hailed as an "exciting summer conference exploring the Illinois coal industry."

For Carbondale activist and radio host Brent Ritzel, who organized a counter exhibit at the conference:

The one-sidedness of the proceedings (they never knew the answer to any question that could potentially be used to paint the coal industry in a negative light, here was no discussion concerning the public health impacts of coal at all) was not lost on many of them, and one teacher indicated that she was going to be contacting Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to express her dissatisfaction and concerns regarding the event.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the Illinois-sponsored Big Coal pusher on children is the state-supported curriculum, "From the Coal Mines to the Power Lines," which provides hundreds of pages of material, maps, posters and CD-ROMs in an attempt to glorify the coal industry.

I spoke with Lan Richart, co-founder of the Eco-Justice Collaborative in Chicago and a founding member of the Heartland Coalfield Alliance, about the state's coal education program and curriculum.

JB: The DCEO coal curriculum is directed toward children and adolescents -- the very age group affected by coal-burning pollutants. How does the curriculum handle coal-burning realities?

LR: Given its length, the curriculum is remarkable in the absence of material honestly discussing the enormous environmental and social costs attributable to coal. Virtually nothing is said about the devastating health effects of coal combustion; that according to the American Lung Association 24,000 people die prematurely each year because of coal-fire power plants, that coal plants are the largest source of mercury in the world, or that coal is responsible for much of the U.S. power-related emissions of particulates, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, contributors to respiratory illness, lung and heart diseases and asthma attacks. Many of coal's victims are the very targets of this curriculum.

The voluminous materials also totally ignore or gloss over:

  • The ravages to the landscape of strip mining; the massive land subsidence of longwall mining;

  • The long-term storage of toxic coal sludge, containing chemicals like lead, arsenic, cadmium and selenium in unlined reservoirs hundreds of acres in size across our Illinois farmlands;

  • The disruption of surface drainage; damages to wells, septic systems, homes and outbuildings; and

  • The injection of mine wastes into the ground.

JB: Three miners die daily from black lung disease, and as the recent Upper Big Branch report noted, there is a "deviant" culture of placing profit over safety in many mines. Many Illinois mines have been cited for constant violations. Do you think the curriculum deals forthrightly with the realities of underground mining and workplace safety?

LR: Absolutely not. The overarching message in the curriculum is that although mine safety regulations affect the cost of coal production, their implementation have brought about dramatic improvements over the past century. By example, mine fatalities of the 1940s are compared to those of the 1990s, showing a reduction of 98 percent. I saw no mention of contemporary examples of mining violations, or recent tragedies resulting from questionable or unethical mining operations.

The treatment of mining laws focuses on improvements made not on current conditions. In the real world mining safety and environmental violations are rampant. As an example, SourceWatch states that since 2005, the Galatia mining complex in Saline County, Illinois has incurred over 2,700 citations and $2.4 million in proposed fines. A spokesman for the United Mining Workers noted that this mine is not particularly better or particularly worse than any other mine in the country.

JB: Speaking of children, coal mining began with child labor until several major moves to halt it. What sort of historical perspective does the curriculum provide? Likewise, Illinois used legal slaves in the first mines -- is that ever discussed?

LR: References are made to historical mining practices, especially as a way to contrast them with current conditions. The role of immigrants and child labor are mentioned, as well as the development of unions to improve worker conditions. No mention is made of the early use of slave labor.

JB: Illinois has an important legacy of union activism. Does the curriculum provide any context for the conditions that led to the rise of unions for workplace democracy?

LR: Several short sections provide a historical context for the conditions driving the development of miners' unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The economic reasons why mine owners of the past might have exploited workers are referenced. However, discussions of today's mining conditions, issues of worker exploitation or union busting are lacking.

JB: Thousands of acres of Shawnee forests and rich farm land have been strip-mined in Illinois, and citizens have been forcibly removed off their ancestral lands. How does the curriculum deal with stripping and reclamation?

LR: Anyone who is familiar with surface mining operations knows that this form of coal extraction requires massive land disturbance, the exposure and release of toxic materials from the coal seam and the disruption of surface and groundwater drainage. Examples abound of inadequately reclaimed mined land, with lost farmland productivity, water quality problems, limited vegetative cover and low habitat diversity. Instead of acknowledging these challenges, the curriculum teaches children that mined lands are routinely restored to parks, wildlife areas, golf courses and farmlands. The DCEO website states that "reclamation is returning the land to the way it was or better than before mining." I wish it were true.

JB: Does the curriculum discuss climate change in an adequate fashion -- especially given Illinois' role in FutureGen and coal?

LR: Greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity, account for 27 percent of total U.S. emissions and are projected to grow by a third by 2025. Over 97 percent of all climate scientists and virtually every Academy of Science in the World are in consensus that global warming is real and that human activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels are contributing to it. Yet, in the Teachers Resource Section, high school teachers are coached to respond to students questioning the connection between coal and climate change, that the evidence is unclear whether the combustion of fossil fuels has led to global climate change and that global warming is complex due to natural phenomenon.

At a time when these students are considering what could be the greatest threat to their entire generation, they are told that the evidence is unclear, that the issue is complex; essentially coal is not a problem.

The State of Illinois is heavily promoting the coal economy and FutureGen, an advanced coal technology plan that hopes to successfully demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) in conjunction with a retrofitted coal-fired power plant. Despite the fact that CCS is still in the development phase and there are no guarantees that it can be successfully implemented on a scale and in a time frame necessary to address climate change, the curriculum speaks of it as an available technology. Ironically, CCS is mentioned primarily in the context of the cost of implementation and the increased price of generated electricity that would result if the power industry had to reduce carbon emissions.

JB: How do you see this curriculum as serving the coal industry?

LR: The curriculum is a seemingly exhaustive attempt to extol the virtues of coal and the coal industry, emphasizing the difficulties coal operators face in bringing coal services and products to consumers, often in the face of restrictive regulations. The introduction clearly states its purpose: "By including coal education in their curriculum, teachers will bring to their students and communities an awareness of our state's greatest natural resource and the positive role coal plays in our day-to-day lives and the economy of the state."

It would seem that in promoting such a curriculum the coal industry and DCEO are attempting to lay a cultural foundation, beginning with the very youngest members of our communities, that supports the unquestioned growth and development of a private industry; an industry that each year is responsible for billions of dollars of health and environmental damages and is right now ushering us headlong into climate catastrophe. Short-term the big financial winner will be the coal industry. Long-term, the losers will be the students whose teachers have indoctrinated them into the "coal culture."

JB: Other thoughts?

LR: I don't think that the coal industry or the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity have any business producing educational curricula for our schools.

I would hope that any teacher receiving these materials would be able to see them for what they are: a medium for promoting an economic agenda. While it is true that coal currently serves as a primary power source for our country, it also has a very dark side. The DCEO curriculum and its current efforts to promote a coal future in Illinois fail to account for the significant social and environmental costs borne by society on behalf of the coal industry.