Falling on the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow coal miners' massacre, a growing movement of citizens groups will gather on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis to join the great Washington University sit-in against Peabody Energy.

The pillars of Big Coal are crumbling in St. Louis this week -- according to Wall Street analysts, and as an extraordinary grassroots movement holds Peabody and its university hosts and investors accountable for its legacy of ruin amid climate change, a failed regulatory system, and a proposed strip mine expansion that will effectively destroy the farming community of Rocky Branch, Illinois.

And for coal mining families across the nation, the Ludlow Massacre of children, women and immigrant union coal miners, is one of the most defining cautionary tales of injustice and rallying cries for action in the American coalfields that still resound today: No one's loss of life, liberty and health for coal industry profits is acceptable collateral damage.

A century later, the indefatigable students at Washington University have inspired the nation with their nearly 2-week sit-in, now joined by students at Southern Illinois University and across the nation, and are asking the same questions about their university's ties with Peabody Energy's climate change-denying mining operations.

In a line: No one's loss of life, liberty and health in Rocky Branch, Illinois -- on Black Mesa, in Arizona, or the Bear Run strip mine in Indiana, or across the globe -- should be acceptable collateral damage for the Attorney General in Illinois or for Washington University trustees or anyone in the United States, in order to pander to Peabody's state-subsidized profit line.

When the Saline County board voted earlier this week to grant Peabody the right to make potentially disastrous road changes in Rocky Branch to facilitate a proposed strip mine expansion--even though Peabody has yet to receive the proper EPA permits--one commissioner simply dismissed the inevitable destruction as "only at 12 households affected by this."

Only 12 households?

Memo to Saline County commissioners: We all live in Rocky Branch, if you consider the toxic fallout of the strip mining operations on our water, land and climate.

Rocky Branch is not "only 12 households," but the deeply rooted and historic community of war veterans, retired coal miners, business owners, farmers, preachers, parents and grandparents, and tax-payers who have the same civil rights and constitutional rights to environmental protection as anyone else.

Rocky Branch residents on Rocky Branch road. Photo courtesy of Justice at Rocky Branch.

This week, in fact, marks the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," who reminded us in 1963: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

In an age of climate change and the need for immediate action, never has that sentiment been more compelling.

In the tradition of King and the civil rights movement, students and community advocates at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale also held protests for divestment from Peabody yesterday.

Carbondale, SIU: Photo courtesy of Chelsea J. Brady

Mother Jones, the great "Miner's Angel" and immigrant union organizer, who is buried near St. Louis in our southern Illinois Progressive Miners' cemetery, once reminded the nation of the lessons from Ludlow, where coal company guardsman murdered innocent children, women and striking union miners:

"No one listened. No one cared. The tickers in the offices of 26 Broadway sounded louder than the sobs of women and children. Men in the steam-heated luxury of Broadway offices could not feel the stinging cold of Colorado hillsides where families lived in tents. Then came Ludlow and the nation heard. Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not."

Are Washington University trustees, investors, the Illinois Attorney General, and the nation listening to the students and communities about the Peabody crisis today?

Entering its second week, the inspiring Washington University sit-in against Peabody Energy has already gone beyond its goals to cut school ties with the St. Louis-based coal giant, and forced the rest of the nation to ask themselves an urgent question in an age of climate change and reckless strip mining ruin: Which side are you on?

Will other schools, alumni groups -- and investors in Peabody Energy -- follow the lead of the Washington U. students?

Case in point: Tonight in my native Saline County in southern Illinois, the county commissioners genuflected to short-term Peabody coal dollars over the "negative impact on about a dozen homeowners who live near the site of the proposed mine," according to one cynical commissioner, and voted to allow the company to close off Rocky Branch road for a proposed strip mine expansion, despite the lack of EPA permits, and documented evidence of flooding, blasting and emergency access problems.

Facing financial ruin, grave heath problems and displacement, the Rocky Branch residents will fight on, thanks to the Wash U. students, and continue to tell the truth: We all live in the coalfields now, in this age of climate change, and it is no longer acceptable to allow anyone to be collateral damage to a disastrous energy policy.

As Rolling Stone recently noted, Peabody CEO Greg Boyce just might be one of the biggest obstacles to meaningful climate change action in the world.

And the historic legacy of those obstacles -- from the heartland to the far reaches of Asia -- should make Washington University end its shameless relationship with Boyce and Peabody immediately.

My family and communities in southern Illinois have literally been fighting the plunder of our communities, farms, forests and coal mining laborers by Peabody coal, along with various other out-of-state companies, since Mr. Francis Peabody himself sank his first historic mine in our parts in 1895.

When Wash U. students joined retired coal miners at Peabody headquarters last year, to reclaim promised health benefits lost in a bankruptcy scheme -- one southern Illinois miner died in 2012 in Peabody's violation-ridden mines -- we were reminded that our coal mining family members even had to pitch a veritable war against Peabody and its sycophants for a living wage, workplace safety and civil rights back in the 1930s, and earlier decades.

National Guard outside of Peabody mine, during Progressive Miners of America strike, Kincaid, IL, 1932. Courtesy of Greg Boozell.

But southern Illinois, despite its historic role in coal mining, has hardly cornered the market on suffering -- especially when it comes to Peabody coal plunder.

In the 1950s, when Peabody collapsed due to market pressures, and relocated its famous brand name to St. Louis under Sinclair Coal Company control, it began one of the most shameful chapters in American history by manipulating the relocation of thousands of Hopi and Navajos on Black Mesa in Arizona and carried out decades of strip mining ruin and water contamination.

In the meantime, Peabody also shifted its massive strip mining operations to central Appalachia, made famous by John Prine's "Paradise" ballad about the loss of his family's community in western Kentucky. "Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away," go the chilling lyrics.

Today, recording over $7 billion in revenues, Peabody has taken its devastating plunder worldwide.

Peabody now operates the largest strip mine in the eastern states, in a controversial operation in Indiana.

With an eye to the spiraling and poorly regulated Asian market, Peabody is expanding its operations in Mongolia.

Despite the magnitude of climate change and the loss of Indonesia's forests and carbon sink for the world, Peabody is expanding operations in that country.

In Australia, Peabody coal miners have launched recent strikes, while religious, farm and environmental groups have called out its reckless mine expansion and lack of a moral compass.

Back in the Midwest, over 217 communities are outraged by their soaring electricity rates from a Peabody boondoggle Prairie state coal-fired plant.

How much longer should educational institutions and other civil rights-minded investors enable the Peabody mine disasters?

That's the big question the Washington University students have asked their administration -- and the rest of the nation.

And that is the big question we must all answer.

Meanwhile, for more information on the Rocky Branch strip mine showdown in southern Illinois, see:

Judy's Rock: More Road Blocks of Peabody's Dead End

Mr. Peabody's Coal Train Ain't Haulin' Away Rocky Branch

Residents Stand Up to Peabody Coal at Historic EPA Hearing

Illinois Strip Mine Showdown is Last Best Hope for Coalfield Justice

While coal mining families in West Virginia and across the country mourned the fourth anniversary of the tragic Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster last week, hailed by US Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II as "a conspiracy to violate mine safety and health laws," the Illinois state legislature rolled out the red carpet for Big Coal and voted to keep a notorious "coal education program" for schools that has been widely denounced by former coal miners and educators as inaccurate industry propaganda.

It's really hard not to get jaded about the state of corrupt coal politics in Illinois.

Sadly enough, last fall former coal miners and citizens groups from southern Illinois, working with national education organizations, waged a successful campaign to take down the state's cringe-worthy "kids coal" website -- but environmental groups in Chicago caught up in the twisted state Democratic politics didn't even bother to contact them.

Last week's episode in the "coal education" fiasco, called out five years ago for unleashing dime-bag coal pushers into our classrooms, places Illinois into the shameless ranks of last decade's Kansas board of education decision to teach creationism.

Here are some Orwellian coal nuggets for the Prairie State's youngest minds:

While the uncritical media reported that Illinois House members "bemoan the decline of the Illinois coal industry," it's a fact that Illinois is in the throes of an unprecedented and unmatched coal mining rush in the nation. Do the frickin' math: In 2010, Illinois coal mined 33 million tons; in 2013, Illinois coal mined 52 million tons. Last summer, Gov. Quinn celebrated a 5-fold increase in coal exports.

While uninformed House members beat their chests and claimed, "the Elkhart mine is clean -- sulfur is not emitted in any measurable amount," whatever that odd comment means, the truth is : 1) black lung disease for coal miners is increasing, 2) Illinois has one of the most disastrous coal slurry enforcement programs in the nation, 3) Illinois ranks as the worst coal ash contamination offenders, 4) strip mining operations have left communities in ruin, destroyed cherished forests, and covered residents in toxic coal dust, 5) untold numbers of abandoned mines continue to discharge toxins, and 6) union-busted coal miners have had to fight for health benefits, 7) prime farmland is being lost to longwall mining, and 8) Peabody Energy even had to shut down a southern Illinois coal mine for a fatal accident and violations.

Check your facts: Coal is dirty, deadly and costly.

While Democrats continue to pander to Big Coal contributors and hail the chimera of "clean coal," even Peabody Energy admitted last fall that carbon capture and storage "clean coal" is "simply not commercially available."

While House members waxed nostalgia about the coal industry, they never teach our kids the historical fact of African-American slavery in the mines, the century of mine disasters and death, or the reality that some of our most historic communities have been stripmined and destroyed.

And here's the best lesson of all, kids: According to a state audit, Illinois has defiantly remained in violation of the law for failing to hire the required number of mine inspectors.

Oh well, at least the summer break is not too far away.

Perhaps instead of the state bankrolling a taxpayer slush fund for a Big Coal education conference in June, teachers might want to contact citizens groups in southern Illinois -- or even visit the extraordinary movement by Rocky Branch farmers and residents to stop a devastating strip mine expansion in Saline County.

While Peabody Energy may have hired a notorious public relations firm to hawk its international ad campaign, a village trustee and her rural farming community have exposed the devastating legacy of the world's largest coal company near its historic Illinois beginnings.

Meet Judy Kellen and the courageous community of Rocky Branch in Saline County, Illinois, whose battle to save their farms, homes and cherished Shawnee Hills from Peabody Energy's proposed strip mine expansion is turning out to be one of the most important watershed events in the heartland.

 

Testifying at the Saline County board meeting last night in Harrisburg, Illinois, Kellen and her neighbors explained how a necessary county road deviation for the proposed strip mine would dangerously cut off emergency vehicle access and be a dead-end for Rocky Branch.

"Our township is being destroyed as well as our county," said Kellen, as reported in The Southern newspaper. "It's going to be very difficult to live in an area where Peabody has sucked the life out of us. Every concession that has been made has been made to accommodate Peabody and it has hurt our residents."

For the first time in recent history, a local community deep in the heart of Illinois coal country, only miles from where Peabody sank its first historic coal mine in 1895, is saying no -- and forcing mainstream environmental organizations and citizens groups to take notice as it draws regional and national attention for its relentless grassroots efforts.

Locals have drawn a line in the sand with a clear message: Mr. Peabody's coal trains ain't haulin' away our community.

Earlier this morning, Rocky Branch supporters were arrested for blockading the county road to draw attention to clear-cut logging of Shawnee forests by Peabody, prior to the final EPA permitting of the strip mine operation, as well as the destruction of habitats for endangered Indiana bats, and dangerously overloaded equipment on county roads.

Illinois-native filmmaker Mitch Wenkus journeyed to southern Illinois recently, to chronicle the epic Rocky Branch showdown, including the role of Judy Kellen. Wenkus released this short film, "Judy's Rock," as part of his documentation:

Kellen riveted the county last fall at a special hearing on the closure of their roads to accommodate the Peabody mine:

"We have lost population, we have lost homes and we have lost roads," Kellen said. "When the mining company is gone who is going to pick up the tab for loss of revenue from homes and roads in order to continue to maintain the roads we still have? We were told when we lose old 13 and it is ripped out that the state would replace it. Our state is broke. We have lost a view of where we could see for miles. We have lost history. We had a cemetery in a beautiful location that now has been turned into something akin to an abyss. 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 everyday and an unrest in the spirit that we knew nothing of."

Earlier this month, despite threats of violence, locals set up road blocks to call attention to Peabody-hired loggers, whose heavy equipment violated county road tonnage limits.

Last week, thanks to an extraordinary grassroots campaign, Kellen and other affected locals including Jennifer Dumbris and farmer/preacher Allan Porter, delivered over 5,000 petition signatures to state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, calling for an immediate halt to the operations and an administrative review of the rushed state permit.

UPDATE: Rocky Branch Road Peaceful Blockade Stops Peabody
11:30 am CST

Facing off with the world's largest coal company, which literally sank its first historic mine nearby in 1895, Rocky Branch farmers, residents and supporters fighting to protect their Shawnee Hills community against a violation-ridden and potentially devastating strip mine set up a road blockade this morning.

The action forced Peabody haulers to unload their equipment to the side of the road, as state police attempted to verify permit and road requirements.

After stationing proper weight limit signs on the the Rocky Branch roads leading to the Peabody strip mine operation, residents say state laws limit road hauling tonnage and weight to 10 tons. According to local residents, several Peabody-hired trucks exceed such legal limits.

As Peabody-hired loggers attempted to enter the main site later this morning, residents peacefully assembled and blockaded the county road leading to the Rocky Branch mine, stretching yellow crime scene tap across the road, and called on the state police to uphold the laws.

Peabody is operating with a DNR mining permit, though it has yet to obtain proper EPA permits for the strip mine operation.

According to several witness, 75-year-old Rocky Branch farmer and pastor Allan Porter was threatened.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Jeff Lucas

As out-of-state loggers clear-cut the forested Shawnee Hills, defiantly posting "Warning: Explosives in Use" signs without state Environmental Protection Agency permits, it may seem like Peabody's violation-ridden Rocky Branch strip mine site in southern Illinois is another lost chapter in the state's century-long history of backroom Big Coal deals.

Not for the undaunted Rocky Branch residents and farmers in Saline County, who have testified and provided unaddressed documentation on permit errors at all public hearings against the reckless mine proposal.

Drawing a line in the sand on the state's coal rush -- and drawing statewide and national support--their message is simple: Mr. Peabody's coal trains ain't haulin' our community away.

Protests, including road blocks, as well as court challenges are planned for today and the rest of the week.

"We are going to pursue every legal means that we can, but with the control the corporations have over the existing system, it will be difficult," Rocky Branch resident Jennifer Dumbris said, "which is why we need all the support possible from the Attorney General to citizens groups across the state and nation. The very fate of our community is now on the edge."

Check out a video of yesterday's clear-cutting in Rocky Branch, as loggers hurried to eliminate the probable habitats of the endangered Indiana bats. (Video courtesy of Christopher Oliver and Derek Deters.)

To borrow a line from Gov. Pat Quinn, who launched a similar battle nearly a decade ago to stop the Banner strip mine in Fulton County: "I urge your company to re-think this flawed idea."

 

Ten years ago, Quinn courageously stood up to Big Coal machinations, declaring:

Strip mining on this site threatens the drinking water of local residents and habitat of eagles, pelicans and fish. It will reduce tourism potential, strain local water treatment systems, and pollute the Illinois River and Copperas Creek.


Why has the Quinn administration now turned its back on the mind-boggling regulatory machinations by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Illinois EPA?

According to local residents, the Rocky Branch strip mine is not only a flawed idea, but one of the most bungled DNR permit decisions in recent history, and with mounting oversights, errors and violations, residents are now calling on Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a petition requesting an internal administrative review of DNR's rushed decision to green-light a mining permit on Wednesday.

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Rocky Branch mine site. Photo by Christopher Oliver and Derek Deters


Ever since Peabody sank its first historic coal mine in nearby Williamson County in 1895, paying children and laborers 25 cents a box for hand-loading two thousand pounds of coal in deadly conditions, Saline County residents and coal miners like my grandfather and family members have taken a fearless stand for coalfield justice, galvanizing mine worker movements, as well as civil rights and environmental campaigns.

Rocky Branch residents plan to carry on that legacy again -- through the intervention of law enforcement agencies, in the courts, and in the courts of public opinion.

"Years ago the timber industry and the Forest Service pushed a plan to log over 3,500 acres around the Bell Smith Springs National Natural Landmark," said Sam Stearns, a former coal miner and Shawnee National Forest advocate, who recently led as successful campaign to remove the state's "clean coal" website for kids. "After a protracted battle with grassroots environmentalists, the logging finally began. Conventional wisdom told the environmentalists to give up, to accept the inevitability of the logging project. But two days after the logging started--- 10 acres out of 3,500 were cut -- environmentalists obtained a court order which halted all logging on the Shawnee for 18 years."

As citizens groups and support for besieged Rocky Branch residents continue to grow, Stearns added: "In order to win short-term battles to protect our land, we have to take a long view of the campaign. We have to adhere to to the principle of endless pressure, endlessly applied."

Is it enough for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and state treasurer candidate Mike Frerichs to hustle today to purge their campaigns of tainted coal industry contributions from a growing mine safety regulator scandal, or should citizens groups and environmentalists hold the Democratic candidates accountable for their full-throttle push behind the state's unprecedented coal mining rush and spiraling fracking debacle?

Questions abound in Illinois, where coal mining production and its toxic slurry fallout has skyrocketed by a mind-boggling 70 percent during the Quinn administration, as Gov. Quinn also touts a controversial and widely denounced fracking regulation law, opening the floodgates for oil and natural gas drilling in the state's beloved Shawnee forest region.

Earlier this week, in fact, despite a public promise by Quinn's deputy chief of staff that no fracking permits would be issued without strengthened fracking rules, Quinn apparently intervened to push through a second horizontal drilling permit for Denver-based Strata-X Energy.

Bottom line: Should the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations, endorse the disastrous pro-coal and pro-fracking Quinn for governor, in default of the Republican candidate, or hold him accountable to the environmental group's principles?

"The Sierra Club should expect Quinn to stand by his green values in every part of Illinois," said Will Reynolds, the former chair of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter and a key environmental blogger.

The Sierra Club recently endorsed Frerichs, despite his long-time support for "clean coal" boondoggles like FutureGen, Taylorville, and his leadership role in shaping a fracking regulatory bill, in his words, "so that we can start the process of bringing the hydraulic fracturing jobs to Illinois."

Quinn, of course, took large contributions from out-of-state coal companies, in his last campaign:


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(from IL State Board of Elections)


While Quinn supporters often tout his administration's role in clean water initiatives and bringing clean energy and green jobs to the state (virtually all in Chicago and central-north Illinois), the governor's two-sided approach for downstate's reckless coal and fracking industries has been disastrous for the state and climate change concerns.

Last spring, Quinn famously triumphed the state's 5-fold increase in coal exports, on the same week climate scientists warned CO2 emissions had reached historic 400ppm levels.

Meanwhile, violation-ridden strip mining and longwall mining operations under the Quinn administration have continued unabated downstate, while high hazard coal slurry dams rise in central Illinois farm towns. Quinn even signed off on strip mining the Pyramid State Park.

Toxic coal ash piles under the Quinn administration continue to rank as some of the worst in the nation.

Quinn's appointed Illinois Pollution Control Board granted waivers last fall for five decrepit and pollution-spewing coal-fired plants.

Under Quinn, millions of state tax dollars also go to subsidies for out-of-state coal companies, like Peabody Energy, which posted $7 billion in revenues last year.

Even coal miners note that the Quinn administration remains in violation of state law for its lack of mine safety inspectors.

"Quinn has given out some clean energy nuggets to the Chicago area," Reynolds added, "but for downstate his administration is an environmental disaster. Instead of showing leadership on climate change, he's launching a two-pronged crisis of fracking and expanded coal mining. There's a long Illinois tradition of politicians pandering to environmentalists in Chicago while promoting coal and dirty energy farther south. Rod Blagojevich was the master of promoting clean energy laws while heavily subsidizing coal. That's not good enough anymore for the growing downstate environmental movement."

When besieged residents, already choked by toxic coal dust, face off with Peabody Energy officials on Tuesday, February 18, in Harrisburg, at an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing for a five-year strip mine expansion permit, more than 1,019 paltry acres will be at stake.

As President Lincoln once invoked in a moment of crisis, the courageous residents in the showdown at Cottage Grove are "our last best hope."

For an electioneering Governor Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and federal environmental officials now under the spotlight in West Virginia coal disasters, Tuesday night's hearing will be a historic litmus test for anyone remotely concerned about civil rights, community rights and the spiraling water crisis from Illinois' reckless and dangerous coal rush.

But faced with losing their homes, farms, health -- and sheer sanity -- from the blasting, potential flooding and non-stop industrial war-zone traffic of coal operators within 300 feet of their living rooms -- southern Illinois residents in Cottage Grove with deep coal mining roots are finally taking a stand for coalfield justice.

Illinois deserves better, Governor. Quinn.

On one level, Tuesday's night IEPA hearing is a meaningless charade of a corrupt and completely rigged mine permitting process -- as an inept IEPA official declared at a similar strip mining hearing three years ago in Macomb, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has NEVER rejected a strip mining permit, at least in his memory. In fact, the strip mine near Macomb, already under state investigation for 600-plus Clean Water Act violations, received its permit. And last month, after federal officials forced the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to halt illegal logging by Peabody, the state officials simply shrugged and told a local newspaper that the "violation, though it will now become part of the application review, is not expected to derail Peabody's chances for a permit because it is taking corrective steps."

Ever since Peabody sank its first historic coal mine in nearby Williamson County in 1895, paying children and laborers 25 cents a box for hand-loading two thousand pounds of coal in deadly conditions, southern Illinois coal miners like my grandfather and family members have taken a fearless stand for coalfield justice, galvanizing the United Mine Workers and Progressive Mine Workers movements for over a century.

Just last year, retired Peabody and Patriot union mine workers were engaged in a long battle for their very lives, health care and pensions, seemingly lost to a shameless bankruptcy scheme. After months of protests and negotiations, and litigation, Peabody finally came to the table for a retirement health fund for coal miners who had given their lungs and lives to the region's mines.

Illinois deserves better, Governor. Quinn.

Isn't it a disgrace enough that the state of Illinois remains in violation of the state law for a lack of mine safety inspectors, and state regulatory officials and politicians take contributions from the very coal companies they regulate -- and at the same time, Illinois is giving millions of dollars of subsidies and charity hand-outs to out-of-state multinational corporations like Peabody Energy, which recorded over $7 billion in revenues last year?

In fact, over the past few years, Peabody has already received an estimated $5.7 million in several state-funded welfare checks, including tax giveaways for its Cottage Grove strip mine:



Illinois already loses $20 million annually, according to a recent study, maintaining the heavily mechanized coal industry.

Isn't it a disgrace enough that Illinois, unlike West Virginia, is greenlighting the injection of toxic and deadly coal slurry in abandoned mines, knowingly jeopardizing the watersheds of residents and farms?

Isn't it a disgrace enough that Illinois ranks at the top of a recent survey of the most spills and cases of contamination from toxic coal ash?

Illinois deserves better.

So do the courageous residents, farmers and retired coal miners, who will make history on Tuesday in Harrisburg, as they defend their lands and livelihoods -- and our state -- from a reckless strip mine.

Lincoln asked our country: "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."

It's time to act anew and launch a Coalfields Regeneration Fund for southern Illinois -- instead of throwing its residents to the whims of a boom and bust cycle of out-of-state coal companies.

Disenthrall yourself, Governor. Quinn, save Cottage Grove and its residents and waterways from this disaster.

In the same days an entrepreneur went on federal trial for fraud over an unproven "clean coal" scheme, President Obama's Department of Energy gave a game-changing approval for a $1 billion gift to continue the unproven FutureGen "clean coal" boondoggle in Illinois.

Kind of ironic, ain't it -- if it weren't so tragic.

On the heels of the West Virginia coal-cleaning chemical disaster, with Illinois residents already besieged by a toxic coal rush that has seen production increase by an estimated 70 percent in the last few years, amid record climate disruptions and drought and flooding, this billion dollar bonus to Big Coal might signal "game over" for clean energy and climate initiatives in the heartland -- or at least Illinois.

According to the DOE "record of decision," the project "would support the ongoing and future use of the nation's abundant coal reserves in a manner that addresses both aging power plants and environmental challenges."

"Clean coal is an essential component of the President's "All of the Above" energy strategy and the proposed project would help DOE meet its congressionally-mandated mission to support advanced clean-coal technologies," the DOE added.

According to the Energy Information Administration, coal production -- and its disastrous fallout of coal slurry, black lung disease and clean water contamination -- in the Illinois Basin should surpass the central Appalachian coal fields by the end of the decade.

Too bad neighboring Iowa can't take over Illinois -- yes Iowa, a state that has taken the lead in the multi-billion-dollar wind industry, making it as competitive in the market as dirty coal.

Illinois, meanwhile, continues to lose nearly $20 million annually to maintain the state coal industry, according to a study last year.

And hardly a single green job designated for southern Illinois' struggling economy.

Last spring, the Congressional Research Service issued their own concerns about the viability of FutureGen's carbon capture and storage plans:

Nearly ten years and two restructuring efforts since FutureGen's inception, the project is still in its early development stages. Although the Alliance completed drilling a characterization well at the storage site in Morgan County, IL, and installed a service rig over the well for further geologic analysis, issues with the power plant itself have not yet been resolved.

Other countries, like Norway, have abandoned the CCS boondoggles after years of planning.

In Illinois, instead, residents in coal mining areas -- not unproven CCS technologies -- have been abandoned. Check out a few recent examples of "clean energy" champion Gov. Pat Quinn's defining coal legacy in the last year:

--Quinn appointees granted a pollution waiver to five aging and toxin-spewing coal-fired plants last fall

--Federal authorities were called in last week, in order to force state officials to stop turning a blind eye on illegal logging and controversial strip mining operations in Saline County

--Despite 600-plus Clean Water Act violations, the state renewed the permit for a strip mining operation in central Illinois

--Despite farmer and town resident petitions over possible safety violations, the state has allowed high hazard coal slurry dams to be built inside the limits of Hillsboro

--Despite record drought, flooding and climate disruptions, Quinn has championed the five-fold increase of dirty coal exports down the impacted Mississippi River

--Abandoned mines continue to threaten and leach toxic discharges into unprotected communities, farms and forests

A Saline County resident said it best this week, with a strip mining threatening his community's future and clean water: "Our problem is we've got tornadoes and floods, but this is a man-made disaster," he said. "We are trying to protect our homes and neighbors."

Four years after the late Sen. Robert Byrd's frank admission that "most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice" of mountaintop removal mining, "and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens," West Virginia residents traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to make a special appeal to retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to complete Byrd's legacy, take the lead in introducing the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act for a "time out" on mountaintop removal mining and finally carry out a proper health assessment.

In Byrd's own words: It's time to fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

"Dear Sen. Rockefeller, please introduce the ACHE Act in 2014," said West Virginia veteran Bo Webb in a recent appeal, citing numerous studies on birth defects, cancer and depression in the coalfields. "Nothing in the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 protects human health from the effects of constant blasting and its toxic fallout of fine particulates of silica, aluminum, and other toxins."

According to Webb, recipient of the Purpose Prize and a resident under a mountaintop removal operation, the ACHE Act is the only bill ever introduced in Congress that addresses "the myriad of health issues in mountaintop removal mining communities specific. He added: "The ACHE Act calls for an immediate freeze on new MTM permits only, thereby protecting current workers jobs. In conjunction with the freeze on new permitting the ACHE Act calls for a health study in MTM communities to be conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences."

Never has Sen. Rockefeller's leadership on health and safety issues been more needed in the coal mining areas of central Appalachia.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter begrudgingly signed SMCRA, calling it a "watered down" bill and "disappointing effort." "The President's other main objection to the bill," wrote the New York Times, "is that it allows the mining companies to cut off the tops of Appalachian mountains to reach entire seams of coal."

Six months after his clarion call for "coal to embrace the future," Byrd reminded our nation in 2010 that West Virginia's most valuable resource was its people, and set out the terms of unacceptable mining practices:

The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.

According to an ACHE Act fact sheet, "residents face accelerated rates of cancer, respiratory diseases and birth defects within their communities near this destructive form of mining."

Rockefeller is no stranger to "time outs"--he called for one a few years ago during the debates on EPA carbon rules, in order to pursue legislative options. In 2012, in explaining his vote against the Inhofe resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency's rules on mercury and air toxics, Rockefeller added:

I oppose this resolution because I care so much about West Virginians.

Without good health it's difficult to hold down a job or live the American dream. Chronic illness is debilitating and impacts a family's income, prosperity and ultimately its happiness.

The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous. EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.

Moreover, it significantly reduces the largest remaining human-caused emissions of mercury--a potent neurotoxin with fetal impacts.

Maybe some can shrug off the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and others but I cannot.

According to Webb and other West Virginia residents, such a commitment to health must now be applied to mountaintop removal areas.

Again, Rockefeller is no stranger to the deleterious impacts of strip-mining. Campaigning at the Morris Harvey College, on January 15, 1972, he delivered an important speech that still resonates today:

"Government has turned its back on the many West Virginians who have borne out of their own property and out of their own pocketbooks the destructive impact of stripping. We heard that our Governor once claimed to have wept as he flew over the strip mine devastation of this state. Now it's the people who weep. They weep because of the devastation of our mountains, because of the disaster of giant high walls, acid-laden benches, and bare, precipitous out-slopes which support no vegetation at all but erode thousands of tons of mud and rocks into the streams and rivers below.

"We can be a powerful force toward both halting the destruction of our state and also toward coming up with economically sound alternatives that will demonstrate best to all people that we have long-term economic interests of the state at heart."

Decades later, it's time for Sen. Rockefeller to step back in the forefront of this issue.

Below is a direct appeal from Greenbrier County, West Virginia resident Cary Beth Reed:


Dear Senator Rockefeller,

I grew up running free through the mountain woods of Southern West Virginia, naming every rock and every tree. I knew them by heart. I imagined myself "Queen of the Forest" filled with creatures and people that were part of my kingdom. I was on call for their alarm, ready to defend and protect them. I was the first Warrior Princess.

I remember you growing up too. You were on TV, all tall and skinny. I believe you are still that now. I was about five years old when you were elected Governor of our beautiful state. I remember thinking what big and funny glasses you had. My oldest sister ran into you at a WVU game one time, or was that the Mountaineer mascot?

When you first ran for office you were opposed to strip mining. You have recently lectured the coal industry for their negligence and legal responsibility of care for the coal miners. I applaud you for this! There is no doubt in my mind that you have the heart of a good man. You stand to respect and protect our hard-working coal miners. I could never have that job. I would be scared out of my mind to go into the crack of the Earth, dark, cramped, breathing dust day in, day out. I wouldn't last a minute. I often wonder if people really do think about how the lights stay on.(?) Do they think of us? Do they think of West Virginians?

Why did you choose to come back to WV after your VISTA Volunteer position? You could have gone to any other state and built a successful career, but you stayed here. Why did you pick us? Was it because you fell in love with the coal miners themselves? Was it their extreme dedication, commitment and enduring strength? I like to think that, but I also like to think you fell in love with the natural beauty of this lovely state and its good people. Perhaps I am biased but I believe your honor lies in your willingness to help others, and perhaps that is why you chose WV.

West Virginia is real. West Virginia is tangible. West Virginia is raw. West Virginia is wild but wonderful. WV is canning vegetables in the summertime with your grandmother on the back porch. WV is riding your first horse on your uncle's farm. WV is about learning how to swim in your local river. West Virginia is about our mountains and our people. And that includes all of our people. No part of West Virginia nor Her people should be subjected to the destruction and heartache of Mountaintop Removal.

Senator Rockefeller, I call on you to speak the truth about the horrible practice of mountaintop removal. Embrace what you first felt was right. MTR doesn't employ traditional coal miners. They do not go under the ground and leave their sweat on the ground on their way out. MTR employs temporary demolition crews. This type of mining practice doesn't create very many jobs, but it is the cause of thousands of underground mining jobs lost; and it is killing the people who live around it.

Senator Rockefeller, I implore you to introduce the ACHE Act (HR 526) in the US Senate today before another child has to be born with birth defects; or another husband has to watch his wife suffer from cancer and die in front of him. A great body of peer reviewed research shows that people living near mountaintop removal are suffering and dying at a much greater rate than anywhere else in the USA. Speak for those who are too afraid to raise their own voices. Speak so change can come that will protect ALL WEST VIRGINIANS whether they are coal miners or not.

With Great Admiration and Respect,

Cary Beth Reed
West Virginia

In this age of climate destabilization, including record bouts of drought, flooding and severe storms in the heartland, it seems almost unreal that the Democrat-controlled state of Illinois is leading the charge for a fracking and coal mining rush.

And this week, as central and southern Illinois folks pick up the pieces from a horrific series of tornadoes, environmentalists and citizens groups are scurrying to respond to the unmitigated disaster of the state's newly released fracking rules.

"Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear," my dear friend Dorothy Allison wrote in her book, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure.

While the news headlines now tell us that "environmentalists feel betrayed by proposed fracking rules," the truth is -- as one southern Illinois resident told me -- the "criticisms are peanuts compared to what environmentalists gave away to industry in the negotiations that led to the statute."

Two or three things we know for sure: Southern Illinoisans have a long, long, long history of betrayal over environmental and community rights issues. Still deeply entrenched in poverty and unemployment, southern Illinois has been plundered for two centuries by the logging industry for its forests, plundered by the coal industry for its coal reserves, and is now on pace to be plundered for its oil and gas reserves (after a similar oil rush in the 1940s).

"The four organizations who betrayed Southern Illinoisans on the fracking bill -- Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Faith in Place -- are now whining that the legislation which they so loved last Spring has putrefied by Winter," said Sam Stearns, a former oil rig worker, coal miner and long-time Shawnee National Forest activist in southern Illinois. "They might as well save their hand-wringing histrionics. We here in Southern Illinois have seen this show before."

Stearns added a quick history lesson:

It was the "professional" environmental organizations back in the 1970s who signed on to a watered down Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). SMCRA paved the way for the abomination of mountaintop removal mining. Here in Southern Illinois in the 1980s it was the Sierra Club which signed an agreement with the U. S. Forest Service allowing for logging on tens of thousands of acres of our Shawnee National Forest. This logging has been stayed for a couple of decades now thanks to the efforts of grassroots environmental activists; but in the interim this same Sierra Club has acquiesced to other environmental degradation on the Shawnee, including commercial development of Wilderness areas and the application of synthetic chemicals in designated Natural Areas on the Shawnee.

And now, suddenly "betrayed" by Gov. Pat Quinn's Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Chicago-based environmentalists like NRDC's Ann Alexander think the fracking regulations just "need fixing," to stem any concern about potential water contamination, earthquakes, air pollution, well abandonment and fracking.

Here are two or three more things we know for sure -- at least from environmentalists and citizens groups that live in the fracking-targeted region of southern Illinois, unlike those quoted in the various news articles:

1) Over the Next 40 Days, We Need to Bury the IDNR in Comments About the Loophole-Riddled Fracking Rule -- And Jump Start the Fracking Moratorium Movement: As Illinois native and renowned scientist Sandra Steingraber has admonished -- and done well in New York -- the only way to keep Illinois from fast-tracking the incredibly flawed rules into law is to bury the understaffed IDNR officials during the public comment period, who are required to respond.

In the meantime, equipped with new scientific studies on health and environmental hazards, renewed efforts must be launched to place a fracking moratorium back on the agenda of the Illinois legislature.

By the end of the week, several citizens groups and environmental organizations, such as Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environmental (SAFE) and the Illinois People's Action launch a daily comment email alert and website. Contact them or the many other grassroots groups who are working on this effort.

2) Despite the urban legend that southern Illinois is a hopelessly pro-fracking region at any cost, the media needs to interview southern Illinois citizens and environmentalists, instead of relying on paid environmental lobbyists, and recognize a Simon Institute survey that shows the region is evenly divided on the issue -- and, in fact, the majority of moderates and independents are against fracking.

Again: Five counties in southern Illinois have voted for a fracking moratorium.

3) Is IDNR rigging the fracking deck? On October 25, less than 24 hours after the news media reported that Mitchell Cohen was appointed the Director of IDNR's Office of Oil and Gas Resource Management, he was huddling at a Holiday Inn in Mount Vernon, Illinois for the Fall Membership meeting of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association.

As part of the new IDNR Oil and Gas website, in fact, IDNR provides direct links to the Illinois Oil and Gas Association -- and zero links to any environmental or citizen watchdog group.

The state of Illinois should either take down these links -- or add links to representative citizens groups in the region.

Again, IDNR's record on coal mining regulations is notorious and needs to be taken into consideration.

4) The four environmental representatives appointed to the state fracking task force should temporarily resign until at least ONE environmental representative from fracking-targeted southern Illinois region is appointed. This is sort of a no-brainer for environmental and citizens groups -- out of a minimum of respect for community rights, basic on-site monitoring accessibility, and the reality of the region's unmatched experience with coal mining regulatory machinations.

This situation, in fact, is kind of weird: Would Chicago accept a state task force on monitoring Lake Michigan that didn't include anyone from Chicago? None of the four environmental representatives appointed to the state fracking task force -- including Alexander from NRDC in Chicago; Jennifer Cassel, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago; Terri Treacy, with the Sierra Club; and Brian Sauder, with the Urbana-based Faith in Place -- is actually based in the fracking-targeted areas, or has any bona fide following in the region.

There are many, many environmentalists and environmental/citizen groups in southern Illinois who could serve on the task force. The four appointees above have the moral obligation to include them on a task force that will literally impact the fate of their community's health and future.

5) Did so-called Illinois environmental leaders actually bungle the fracking regulatory rules process out of naivete, inexperience, arrogance -- or a combination of all of the above -- and now are scrambling to save face?

In Sunday's Chicago Tribune, we read: Environmentalists feel betrayed by proposed fracking rules.

Perhaps the Tribune needs to make a correction: Chicago-based environmentalists that cut a deal with the Quinn administration, far from the actual fracking-targeted areas in southern Illinois, feel betrayed by the proposed fracking rules.

Why?

In southern Illinois, along with the five counties that voted for a moratorium on fracking, the truly representative environmental and citizens groups were against the flawed fracking regulatory bill.

On the West Coast, the big environmental organizations wisely dropped their support of California's flawed fracking regulatory bill.

On the East Coast, even Roger Downs, the conservation director of the Sierra Club's Atlantic chapter, called out the compromise of his fellow Illinois environmentalists: "California and Illinois have blindly rushed into the fracking fray and will stumble through the pitfalls that Governor Cuomo has wisely contemplated."

In Illinois, a Democrat-controlled state, NRDC attorney Ann Alexander crowed the Illinois fracking regulatory bill was a "model of cooperation." Alexander added: "SB1715 will at least give the public a voice in the process, and a suite of basic protections."

Give the public a voice? Basic protections?

Now, Alexander feels betrayed and complains about the lack of opportunity for a public voice--and yet, according to southern Illinois environmentalists, Alexander still fails to include the agreed-upon disclaimer that fracking is not safe.

Even Jennifer Cassel, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago told the Tribune: "We supported this law understanding that these requirements were in the law because that's how it is written. We would have thought a lot harder and maybe wouldn't have supported the law had we known these critical provisions wouldn't be included."

6) The staff -- as opposed to the grassroots ranks -- of the Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Illinois Environmental Council, and the tiny Faith in Place -- need to stop giving awards and touring pro-fracking and "clean coal" regulatory champion Mike Frerichs as a clean energy rock star.

7) IDNR Director Marc Miller needs to stop invoking the beloved Aldo Leopold on Twitter and Facebook. Miller came into office as the great hope of environmentalists, but ultimately the buck stops at his office for the current disasters over fracking rules and coal slurry and coal mining crises.

Aldo Leopold is the greatest voice on conservation to emerge out of the heartland: What would Aldo Leopold do in Illinois? Most likely, he would be ashamed of IDNR's policies.

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us," Leopold wrote. "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

Such a sentiment remains deeply rooted in the fracking-targeted, over-logged and stripmined Shawnee Forests and rural communities in southern Illinois.

Just ask someone, like an environmentalist, from southern Illinois.