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The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland

by Jeff Biggers

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56858-421-8
Publisher: Nation Books

Bloomsbury Review contributing editor Biggers (In the Sierra Madre, 2006, etc.) takes on Big Coal in this enriching history.

The author’s forebears hailed from Eagle Creek, Ill., tucked away in the Shawnee National Forest and rich in several coal veins, now devastated by strip mining. By 1998 the last relation had sold what was left of the homestead to the encroaching coal company, which was relentlessly blasting the surrounding hills until it resembled “the scene of a crime.” Biggers aims at the root of the wrong-headed decisions over the last two centuries, which allowed southern Illinois, called the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” to reach such a desperate pass. The author moves between the big and the small picture. After noting that 42 to 45 percent of the U.S. electrical needs are supplied by coal and that over 40 percent of CO2 emissions come from coal-fired plants, he fashions affecting memories of his miner grandfather who died from black lung. Biggers addresses stereotypes of the hillbilly in these so-called Illinois Ozarks, which suffer from the same economic and social blights as Appalachia, and examines local efforts to organize a Shawnee Indian settlement, after they were driven out by the strip miners in the 1960s. He also excavates the lost early history of the use of African slaves and Native Americans to work the salt and mineral mines of Illinois and Missouri. Biggers delves into the fascinating legacy of the union organizers such as Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Agnes Burns Wieck, the progressive movement and the explosion of mine accidents that accompanied the height of production in the 1910s and ’20s, and he considers the oxymoron “clean coal” and the “boondoggle” FutureGen as further ways to disguise the “dirty realities” of coal.

An important look at the staggering human and environmental costs of mining.