Do you know where MU gets its coal?
Missouri? Nope. Kansas? Guess again.
MU gets its coal from Knight Hawk Coal in southern Illinois, about 200 miles from Columbia. That's right, not only are we sending all that revenue out of state, but we're also putting a burden on the communities of southern Illinois who suffer from the pollution and degradation from that coal mining.
With about 80 percent of its electricity generated by the coal-fired power plant on campus, MU is one of the last holdouts in the nation relying on dirty coal on campus. This devastating form of energy production not only threatens the health of students and the community when we burn it on campus, but it has left a legacy of ruin in our neighboring state.
We need to take a much closer look at the true cost of burning coal on campus.
Poverty and health care crisis
Pollution from coal costs our nation $100 billion in health costs each year, according to a report from the Clean Air Task Force. Locally, the stranglehold of Big Coal on coalfield communities has prevented economic diversification and led to mind-boggling levels of poverty and ailing health.
Saline County, Ill., for example, the rich heartland of the Illinois coal industry, ranks 98th out of 102 counties for quality health indicators in that state. Jeff's family has lived and worked in the coal mines for nearly 200 years in Saline County, until their ancestral farm was strip-mined for coal.
Coal mining communities understand first hand that the so-called prosperity from business ventures with MU and its power plant is not just deceptive, but deadly. Southern Illinois has been subjected to the whims of the outside market, absentee landlords and coal companies and the boom-bust cycles that have left the region in poverty with few economic opportunities.
About 4,000 miners are currently employed in Illinois according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Many coal mining communities are boarded up, coal miners have seen their property values decline and homes lost, schools have been consolidated and closed. At the same time, billions of dollars worth of coal have been mined and trained out of the region. In the meantime, 104,000 miners have died from 1900 to 2005 in our American mines, and more than 250,000 miners have died from black lung, with more than 10,000 of those comingin the past decade.
Coal slurry disaster
Over the past decades, untold millions of gallons of toxic coal slurry — or the coal waste mixed with the water and chemicals used to wash the coal before it's shipped to market — have been injected into honeycombed underground mines or stored in huge reservoirs. This waste has poisoned underground aquifers, waterways, wells and drinking water sources that coal miners, farmers and their families get their water from. Farmers just east of St. Louis, for example, were devastated by typical coal slurry leaks in their watersheds, resulting in shocking cases of cancer and death.
Since their birth in Illinois in the 1850s, strip-mining operations have been similar to a war-zone environment. These operations use millions of pounds of explosives to blow up mountains and hills and as a result have wiped out millions of acres of prime farmland and Shawnee forests, and led to the largest forced removal of American citizens since the 1800s. Less than three percent of the devastated land has been returned to productive use.
Big Coal is also destroying agriculture, as massive longwall mining operations churn up pillars of coal underground, leading to subsidence of the land, damaged fields and irrigation and the forced removal of American farmers who are left to resolve problems on their own with the mining companies.
Black lung disease
Despite the fact that it was first diagnosed in 1831, black lung disease continues to kill on average three coal miners daily. And taxpayers, because of defaults on loans by Big Coal companies, are picking up the tab.
However, opposition to the dirty, dangerous and outdated coal industry is growing on campuses and communities nationwide. Already since the national Campuses Beyond Coal campaign launched, 19 schools from Illinois to Wisconsin have made commitments to stop burning dirty coal on campus.
Does MU want to be ranked at the bottom of educational institutions on one of the most important issues of our time?
The answer for our Columbia community, and our partners in southern Illinois, is a resounding no.
We must act now to move MU beyond coal to real, clean energy solutions that will make us a leader. We can’t delay and continue to put off the consequences of burning coal on out-of-state communities and future generations.
The university’s contract with Knight Hawk Coal expires in 2013. We demand that this contract not be renewed and instead the university makes the switch to cleaner, local energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and efficiency that will save us money and reduce our pollution.
For the sake of the students and residents of Columbia and the people in communities throughout southern Illinois, MU Chancellor Brady Deaton must make a public commitment to moving off dirty coal immediately.
Taylor Dankmyer, a senior at MU majoring in strategic communication, is vice president of Coal Free Mizzou. Jeff Biggers is an author and educator from southern Illinois. His work includes "Reckoning at Eagle Creek," "The United States of Appalachia" and the forthcoming "STATE OUT OF THE UNION: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream."