By Jeff Biggers
As Illinois, as well as farmers and residents in Vermilion County, find themselves again in the throes of a short-term coal rush with devastating health and environmental impacts, it's time to turn the page on the past and transition to a future with more sustainable economic development.
As a kid growing up briefly in Danville in the 1960s, I'll never forget riding my bike in the ruins of some of the nation's first strip mine pits in the area.
Now, four decades later, after shouldering the health costs and powering our nation's industrial rise to fortune over the past century, don't downstate communities deserve their fair share of high-paying clean-energy jobs and a transition fund for retraining and investment to jump-start reforestation and abandoned mine projects, clean-energy manufacturing and energy-efficiency campaigns?
An eastern Kentucky coal miner recently reminded me how his state was entering a new era, and getting past the hand-wringing, the finger-pointing and the false arguments on coal mining. Led by bipartisan politicians, eastern Kentuckians gathered Dec. 9 for a high-level government-sponsored summit on economic diversification.
As Vermilion County farmers now testify against the proposed Sunrise Bulldog coal mine, I often wonder: Where's the new discussion from our political leaders about the real costs of coal and the real gains for downstate Illinois' clean energy future?
A breakthrough study last year found that the state of Illinois already loses $20 million annually to maintain the heavily mechanized coal industry.
Small but growing economic diversification projects abound among our coal-mining neighbors in Appalachia. In Williamson, W.Va., unemployed coal miners drew national attention for a solar-installation jobs project. The Energy Savings Action Center was launched recently as a website to help Appalachian residents save money and energy by promoting energy-efficiency loan programs through local electric utilities, which will put electricians, plumbers, construction crews and others to work.
Last fall, Iowa scored a $1.9 billion contract to build wind turbines.
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality," the famed visionary R. Buckminster Fuller once reminded us. "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
But the obvious fulfillment of Fuller's new model — clean-energy jobs — is sorely lacking in central and southern Illinois. In a recent survey on clean energy, every single new green job for Illinois went to Chicago or central north areas.
This is wrong, and this oversight must change.
It's 2014: Doesn't downstate Illinois deserve its fair share of high-paying clean-energy jobs and a transition fund for retraining and investment?
If we can pump out millions in subsidies for natural disasters and subsequent repairs, can't we do the same for regenerative efforts in coal-mining communities? If we can give out-of-state coal companies millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies for equipment, why can't we do the same for energy-efficiency companies and wind-turbine manufacturers.
It's time to turn the state's antiquated coal revival subsidies for out-of-state corporations like Peabody Energy, which recorded $7 billion in revenues last year, into a coalfields regeneration fund for downstate Illinois residents and businesses.
As the nation watches the coal slurry, coal ash and mining problems mount in West Virginia, besieged residents in Illinois know all too well the ignored human and health costs of our state's poorly regulated coal industry.
Enough is enough.
If coal countries like Germany can produce nearly 60 percent of its electricity (as measured on Oct. 3) from largely decentralized sources of wind and solar and once coal-laden Scotland (where black lung disease from coal dust was first diagnosed in the 1830s) can set out an ambitious road map to become 100 percent free of fossil fuels by 2020, why can't downstate Illinois lead clean-energy manufacturing efforts in a similar manner?
Let's get beyond the old hackneyed phrases of coal this election year and start a new discussion on coalfields regeneration in the 21st century.
Or, as my coal-miner friend in eastern Kentucky would say: Let the sun rise on downstate Illinois' bright future with new energy.
Jeff Biggers is a journalist/historian and the author of "Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland." He briefly attended elementary school in Danville.