Digging up the real costs of coal

Jeff Biggers

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Almost 10 years ago, writer and sometime radio producer Jeff Biggers, went along with his mother on a family trip. To the coal-mining hollow in southern Ill., where she'd grown up.

JEFF BIGGERS' MOM: Go slow, Doug, this is Dallas' house right here. Then ours was up on the hill, and um, oh look at that...

What she was looking at, Jeff Biggers says, wasn't a house at all anymore but a crater blasted away by strip-mining. Jeff's book about what mining did to the miners, to their families, and to the land is called "Reckoning at Eagle Creek."

Jeff Biggers: You know, what I didn't realize, Kai, when we went up to this strip-mine site, that it wasn't just our family that had been strip-mined, but it's the history of the region that had been strip-mined. And for someone who never really considered coal a part of my life, it set me off on this 10-year journey to really understand sort of the staggering human and environmental cost of coal that the rest of the nation really had paid for. You know, part of the great mythology is coal is cheap and coal is clean.

Ryssdal: Remind us really briefly, Jeff, what clean coal is or is supposed to be, actually.

BIGGERS: Today we use clean coal to refer to carbon, capture and storage. When we somehow are going to catch these emissions, these carbon dioxide emissions that come out our coal fire plants that provide 40 percent of the carbon emissions today in the nation and somehow put them back underground.

Ryssdal: You mention costs, but Jeff, for the average person on the street who uses coal-powered electricity, I mean coal is just cheap.

BIGGERS: Coal is cheap if you just talk about kilowatts, but now we have to talk about the external costs of coal. You know, the National Academy of Scientists just this year released an incredible study that showed us the external health care and environmental costs of coal were at least $62 billion extra. If you look at the Black Lung program, Kai, where three coalminers still die daily from black lung disease, think about it, in 2010, we have to pay billions of dollars for this program because the coal companies defaulted on it.

Ryssdal: Obviously, this is a heartfelt topic for you. I have to ask you, though, how realistic you think your fight is. As long as we can have cheap coal to power our electrical plants, and don't have to see the damage, how far are you going to get?

BIGGERS: You know, our expression now, Kai, is that we all live in the coal fields. Because we all live within an hour or two hours of a coal fire plant that is spewing carbon dioxide emissions. And as we know from the research of climate destabilization and climate change, we're reaching a tipping point here. I believe the only way we can move forward is to commit to a coal-free future.

Ryssdal: What about the industry itself, though, Jeff? I mean down in the hollows of Illinois where you're from, I bet there are people there who would say, yeah, come on in, bring that mining stuff because we need the jobs. This is a region that is historically depressed, now even more so.

BIGGERS: Right, and I'm glad that you bring up the issue of jobs because it's really one of the great mythologies that somehow the coal industry has provided jobs. You know, the coal industry is heavily mechanized, and over 65 percent of our coal comes from strip mines, like Mountaintop Removal, in West Virginia, in Appalachian states, where you literally don't need coal miners anymore. They use massive explosives, ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives and then heavy equipment operators like bulldozers. So for one job that we're using in the coal mine has ultimately taken away two or three other jobs that we used to have.

Ryssdal: OK, let me ask you this, though. The statistics are that coal accounts for something like 44ish percent of our electrical production. If we don't use coal, and specifically, clean coal, what do we use?

BIGGERS: There are so many studies that show that we don't have to have one silver bullet to replace coal. That there's a schmorgesborg of alternatives. We have solar, we have geothermal, we have offshore wind. There are so many different options, it's not funny. And the first way, of course, is to literally just reduce our consumption.

Ryssdal: Isn't it a little bit like the price of oil, though, in that when the price of oil is low, there's no incentive for searching for these alternative means? And the price of coal, at least on the market as the everyday consumer is concerned, is still fairly low, so there's no incentive for the search for alternatives.

BIGGERS: And that is why we have to factor in the external coast of coal as part of the equation. Coal is the new tobacco of today. It is that dirty. And it's that something that we truly have to move beyond.

Ryssdal: You still have family down in Eagle Creek, Jeff?

BIGGERS: Eagle Creek ultimately doesn't exist any longer. One of the oldest historic communities in America has been completed erased from the American experience.

Ryssdal: The book by Jeff Biggers is called "Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland." Jeff, thanks a lot.

BIGGERS: Thanks so much for having me on.

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