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Tackling the coal mines

BY ADAM SALAZAR | FEBRUARY 17, 2010 7:30 AM

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Investigative journalist Jeff Biggers is not a big fan of coal. Having his family’s ancestral home of Eagle Creek, Ill., razed to make way for coal production, Biggers found no other way to illustrate his frustration than to do what he does best — tell the story.

Biggers has written three critically acclaimed books, and his latest memoir, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Midwest, reveals not only the dirty past of coal mining but also the story of his family. The author will read from the memoir at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque, at 7 p.m. today. Admission is free.

A mix of part-memoir, part-investigative history, Reckoning at Eagle Creek takes a look back at 200 years of exploitation, slavery, and economic devastation. Biggers concludes that the myth of clean coal as a renewable energy is just that, a myth.

“Essentially from the cradle to the grave, coal is dirty,” he said.

Although the talk of carbon emissions and renewable energy has been centered on the subject of petroleum, the legacy of coal can be far more shocking than one might envision.

Biggers said more than 45 percent of electricity in the nation is produced by coal, and coal mines are now mostly concentrated in the Appalachians. One might assume that because this region of the country is rich in coal, it would be economically vibrant. However, Biggers explains this is far from reality. Big mining companies often care very little about those they employ because of modern infrastructure and technology, he said.

Poverty levels in southern Illinois are far greater that than of the northern part of the state, whose electricity is supplied by areas where Biggers’ family has lived since 1908. Appalachia is no better.

Ever since the Clean Air Act of 1990, coal mines have become almost nonexistent in Illinois and Iowa. But at its height in 1908, Iowa coal mining (mostly concentrated on the Missouri border), brought thousands of immigrants to the state, creating the diverse ethnic fabric that is now the state’s legacy.

Mary Howes, a geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey, said that although the dangers of coal mining are many, there were also some benefits.

“Mining was dangerous but employed a lot of people,” she said. “Iowa owes a lot to that.”


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