Jeff Biggers: Mr. President, Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books/Basic Books).]

While President Obama addresses the US Congress in his historic State of the Union tonight, our nation will sit back and burn an estimated 115,000 tons of coal. Close to 250,000 tons of CO2 will be released from coal-fired plants during the hourlong presentation; hundreds of pounds of toxic mercury emissions will enter our air, and inevitably, into the lives of our children.

As we watch the President on our televisions and computer screens generated by coal-fired electricity, arsenic from coal ash, along with boron, selenium and lead, will quietly seep into our watersheds. Drawing from American Lung Association estimates, three American citizens will die prematurely during the State of the Union due to illnesses related to coal-fired plant pollution; three coal miners will also die today from black lung disease. Millions of tax dollars will be allocated in this single hour to cover the external health care and environmental costs of coal.

And the deadly myth of the Saudi Arabia of coal will burn on....

(I write now as a cultural historian, and the grandson of a union coal miner who barely survived a cave-in, and suffered from black lung disease; and, as someone who has not only chronicled the two centuries of economic despair and displacement in the coalfields, but witnessed the destruction of his family's nearly 200-year-old historic homestead and waterways on the edge of a federally recognized Wilderness Area from stripmining in Illinois.)

When George Washington addressed the US Congress in the first State of the Union in 1790, hundreds of black slaves toiled like human bulldozers, chains "fastened by straps around his breast, which he hooks to the corve, and thus harnessed, and in a stooping posture, he drags his heavy load over the floor of rock." The death toll of slaves in the coal mines for over a century was horrific.

And yet, the energy demands--and economic development and profits--of our growing nation outweighed Washington's call for the US Congress to apply some foresight to the future welfare of American citizens. As early as 1790, a Philadelphia newspaper lamented: "The increasing scarcity and dearness of firewood indicates the absolute necessity of attending in the future to the coal mines of this country."

Even in the land of Lincoln, and Obama, the US Congress allowed Illinois to insert a loophole in the state's 1818 constitution for legal slavery in the salt wells and adjacent coal mines.

Yes, Virginia, Illinois was a slave state.

Recognizing that more than one-third of the state's tax revenues came from the salt wells fueled by coal mining, the anti-slavery advocates capitulated to the demands of the slave-owning companies. In essence, the inalienable rights of man in other free states came in a distant second to the power of the tax revenues for Illinois's emancipationists.

This deceptive argument of economic gain and necessity from coal has been saddled to our energy policies for 200 years....

Here in the Saudi Arabia of coal, we hope our nation will learn and recognize our history, and act on it, as George Washington declared in his first State of the Union: "By convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burdens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society."

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