Four years after the publication of my memoir/history, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, I found myself sitting in the front row of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing in southern Illinois. It was a historic evening in Harrisburg, only a few miles from where Peabody Energy sank its first coal mine in 1895, and a few blocks from where I had sat on the front porch as a kid and listened to the stories of my grandfather and other coal miners about union battles for justice. For the first time in decades, residents in coal country were shining the spotlight on issues of civil rights, environmental ruin and a spiraling health crisis from a poorly regulated coal mining rush.
The total destruction of my family's nearby Eagle Creek community from strip-mining was held up as their cautionary tale. The takeaway: Strip-mining more than stripped the land; it stripped the traces of any human contact.
“We have lost population, we have lost homes and we have lost roads,” testified Judy Kellen, a resident facing an expanded strip mine in Rocky Branch. “We have lost history. We have to endure dust, noise levels to the pitch you wanted to scream because you couldn’t get any rest or sleep, earth tremors, home damages, complete isolation of any type of view to the north, health issues, a sadness in your heart that puts a dread on your face every day, and an unrest in the spirit that we knew nothing of.”
A lot has changed in these four years—much of it troubling, and much of it inspiring.
After traveling to coal mining communities around the U.S. and the world, I have learned that my own private reckoning with coal in the great Shawnee forests surrounding Eagle Creek was only a prologue to our greater climate reckoning for my children.But first, the inspiring part: Faced with losing their homes, farms, health—and sheer sanity—from the blasting and non-stop war-zone traffic of coal operators within 300 feet of their living rooms—southern Illinois residents with deep coal mining roots in Harrisburg were taking a courageous stand for climate and coalfield justice. Meanwhile, former coal mining areas from central Appalachia to Germany to Scotland have begun the process of transitioning to clean energy economies.
Here's the troubling part: Four years after the publication of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, Illinois is in the throes of a coal-mining rush not seen in nearly a century, recognized as the fastest-growing coal region in the nation. Since 2009, the state's mining production has increased by more than 60 percent.
In that same time period, my kids—the 9th generation of our family to be born in Illinois—and I have watched coal barges ease down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in a fivefold increase in coal exports, en route to CO2-spewing coal-fired plants abroad. The wake-up call: Illinois has experienced record drought and flooding, as climate scientists determined our planet had reached the alarming 400 parts-per-million milestone of CO2 emissions for the first time in millions of years.
Coal miners remain the canaries in the coal mine: Black lung disease among coal miners, an issue dear to my heart and to anyone who has watched their loved ones and friends suffer needlessly, is at record levels in 2014.
And communities not far from my beloved Eagle Creek, including members of my own displaced family, have once again found themselves on the front lines of mining destruction. As part of an “all-of-the’above” energy policy touted by President Barack Obama and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn—a Sierra Club-supported Democrat who once led anti-strip-mining campaigns and swept into office on promises of regulatory reform—the heartland has undergone a series of mind-boggling machinations in favor of coal mining and hydraulic fracking.
Even as states start the long process of responding to the proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to cut CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent, coal industry lobbyists and their political sycophants continue to roll out the wildly inaccurate “war on the coal” slogans with fervor, and double down on their denial of climate change.
It begins with our kids: Despite a campaign by former coal miner Sam Stearns to halt the state's cringe-worthy "coal education" program, Illinois continues to push coal industry propaganda and climate denial into our schools.
It extends into our farm communities, like Hillsboro in central Illinois, where elderly farmers are fighting to protect their fertile land and watersheds from longwall mining and coal slurry pollution.
In these last four years, we have witnessed the cycles of hype and indifference over our coal mining disasters, coal slurry, coal ash and coal-related chemical spills, most notably in West Virginia last spring, which contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents near Charleston.And we have seen a stunning disregard for law enforcement by government agencies. An Associated Press investigation made a startling discovery this year of a coal industry run amok:
“...[A] review of federal environmental enforcement records shows that nearly three-quarters of the 1,727 coal mines listed haven't been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws. Also, 13 percent of the fossil-fuel fired power plants are not complying with the Clean Water Act.”
Nowhere has such recklessness been so evident than in my own southern Illinois.
I have learned two things from the loss of Eagle Creek and the treatment of coal miners like my grandfather and residents in today's coal mining communities; in a nation that prioritizes coal industry profits over workplace and residential safety, people are as disposable as our natural resources in openly accepted national sacrifice zones. And secondly, all coal mining safety laws have been written in miners' blood; the same is true for innocent citizens afflicted by clean water violations by coal and chemical companies.
This disregard for basic health and civil rights doesn't end here, though. The fallout over increasing climate disturbances brings a harrowing message: We all live in the coalfields now. Extreme energy extraction and fossil fuel burning, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned, is leading us to “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”With the exigency of action on climate change, and the mounting death toll and costs from coal mining, the heartland—like our nation—has reached a crossroads in our energy policy: It’s time to fashion a just transition toward a more sustainable and diversified economy, including clean energy development, especially for those in historical coal mining communities--not just urban centers like Chicago that are connected to political power and pay-offs.
We need a plan for regeneration, not simply more unenforced EPA regulations.
How can we keep the carbon in the ground? By ensuring that our people and our ingenuity are considered our greatest natural resources.After shouldering the massive health and environmental costs of powering our nation’s industrial rise to fortune over the past century, impoverished communities on the front lines of extraction should be in the forefront of clean energy investment and jobs. We need a regeneration fund for retraining and initiatives to jump-start reforestation and abandoned mine projects, along with start-up funds for solar and wind energy manufacturing and energy-efficiency campaigns.
Reckoning at Eagle Creek is my attempt to not only restore and “re-story” Eagle Creek and its place in history, but also plant the seeds to regenerate its unique contributions to our future American story.
To ask Abraham Lincoln's question in our own times: "It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
This essay was adapted from the new Foreword to the paperback edition of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, released this week by Southern Illinois University Press.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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