Jeff Biggers in the Chicago Sun-Times

Jeff Biggers, who will be talking about his new book Reckoning at Eagle Creek, “clean” coal, and environmental news & media at 1:30 pm on Friday during the Summit, was featured in the Chicago Sun-Times. Here is an excerpt:

It had been years since Biggers had returned to his roots in southern Illinois. Decades and ambitions had taken him elsewhere: Europe, Asia, Latin America. Everywhere but home.

Working in Mexico in 1999, Biggers received a note from his uncle about the strip-mining of Eagle Creek, his boyhood stamping grounds near the Shawnee National Forest. The family homestead, one held by eight generations of Biggers since 1849, trembled in the shadow of bulldozers and coal mining’s surge, both approaching with equal velocity and vigor.

While researching and writing about other cultures, Biggers, an accomplished historian and investigative journalist, discovered that his own culture was vanishing. Two choices emerged: ignore his uncle’s plea and disregard Eagle Creek’s fate or attempt to reclaim its history as both a writer and as one of the area’s own.

“I knew I had to return,” Biggers said. “It wasn’t just our cabin and farm that was being erased, but our history, as well.”

Thus began a 10-year odyssey for Biggers, a journey culminating in Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation, $26.95), an insightful project blending Biggers’ personal connections to his southern Illinois roots with a cutting analysis of the staggering human and environmental cost of coal mining.

“It’s a decision that’s been made time after time — commerce and profit trump the human, the history and the land,” Biggers said.

The boom-and-bust cycles of the coal market, which presently furnishes more than 40 percent of the nation’s electrical needs, have stalled economic growth in the coalfield communities, made land and homes disposable, and pushed marketing slogans over human conditions, Biggers argues.

“This is not something to be glib about. We need to overcome the anatomy of denial and understand the real legacy of coal,” said Biggers, who now resides Downstate.

In today’s increasingly eco-conscious world, the coalfields inhabit a secondary role to reusable tote bags and hybrid cars despite the rampant pollution and health concerns of coal-fired plant pollution. Reckoning presents a sturdy challenge to today’s leaders, urging them to recognize coal mining’s real victims and reassess the nation’s misguided dependence and support of “clean coal,” which Biggers suggests is nothing more than a century-old marketing slogan akin to the tobacco industry pawning “safe” cigarettes.

“Coal is not our alternative energy answer but rather the prime contributor to our nation’s emissions crisis and the chief hurdle to a sustainable energy policy,” he said. “The coalfields are the real ground zero for climate change. Coal is deadly and costly and the most destructive, dirtiest way of making energy.”

Yet, Reckoning at Eagle Creek balances the darkness with light. Utilizing his journalistic skills and a historian’s eye, Biggers attempts to debunk the rising myth that coal is cheap and clean while simultaneously sharing the spirited and resilient legacy of southern Illinois’ coalfield inhabitants.

“Southern Illinois has been the crossroads of so much of our nation’s history — from Native Americans and slavery to Union wars — and here it is today fighting the environmental battle,” Biggers said.

While the book’s environmental message and Illinois setting connect it to modern-day Chicago, Biggers says the relationship runs deeper.

“We forget that Chicago was the first great coal market, that Samuel Insull lit up the world at the Columbian Exposition [in 1893],” Biggers said. “We all live in the coalfields. It might be dug down south, but Chicago burns it.”

Continue reading here.

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