Taking On The World’s Largest Coal Company
“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”
-John Prine, Paradise
There’s an insurrection afoot. And it’s in America’s heartlands no less. Bold and effective organizing against oil companies, natural gas companies and coal companies has started this insurrection that has openly challenged these powerful industries. This phenomenon has spread across the country and created unusual coalitions of Indigenous communities, environmental activists and rural landowners opposed to corporate seizures of their property.
The most recent example occurred last week at Peabody Energy’s shareholder meeting in St. Louis. For the second time in less than a week, 11 people were arrested in defiance of the world’s largest coal company. Joining people from St. Louis, Arizona, southern Illinois and other parts of the world, the 11 were arrested while attempting to enter Peabody’s annual shareholder meeting seeking a redress of grievances with the company. From Arizona to the American heartland, Peabody has ravaged communities, the climate, forests and other wild places for over a century.
For five decades on Black Mesa, a 2.1-million-acre highland in Northeast Arizona, Peabody has mined coal and exploited the Navajo Aquifer to enrich the company’s executives and shareholders. The Navajo Aquifer is the main source of potable water for the Navajo and Hopi tribes. They use the water for farming and livestock maintenance as well as drinking and other domestic uses. After being blocked from using rail to transport coal to power generation plants that have lit up cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix over the decades, Peabody built a coal slurry pipeline to move the coal instead Furthermore, Peabody’s massive strip mining operations have led to forced relocation of Black Mesa’s residents.
But resistance to Peabody’s operations on Black Mesa has marked a forty year anniversary. Navajo and Hopi residents have long fought Peabody’s colonization of their lands. The struggle is far from over.
Next week, a camp on Black Mesa will bring together many different groups that have long resisted Peabody to further strategize and prepare for campaigns against the coal giant.
Turning east to the Illinois basin, Peabody has joined in a historic coalfield revival. The basin spans southern Illinois, western Kentucky and southeastern Indiana. In 2010, Peabody opened a mine called Bear Run, located in Sullivan County, Indiana, which is now the largest strip mine east of the Mississippi and a symbol of the booming Illinois basin. As power plants install scrubber technology that allows the burning of high sulphur coal, coal mining companies are applying for permits and opening strip mines.
The forests and farmlands of America’s heartland are once again becoming a sacrifice zone for cheap electricity and Peabody Coal’s profits.
However, the reckless behavior of Peabody around a proposed strip mine in Rocky Branch, IL has roused residents into action. As Peabody attempts to start operations with no permits and ignoring state regulations, members of the township have been showing up to public hearings and challenging regulators and law enforcement to do their jobs. While Peabody hires notorious public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller to sell dirty coal, Saline County, IL is in open rebellion against the mining giant’s operations.
Writer Jeff Biggers recently noted “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 fight through the intervention of law enforcement agencies, in the courts, and through direct public pressure. Despite Peabody’s best efforts, this fight is just beginning.
In St. Louis, two other campaigns are wrecking Peabody’s public image as well. The “Take Back St. Louis” campaign has gone after $60 million in tax breaks that the city gave Peabody beginning in 2010. Getting an initiative on a local ballot to stop these tax breaks for the world’s biggest coal company that take vital funding coming from public schools and other public services, organizers with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment have sought an intersection between climate justice and economic justice issues.
Peabody, predictably, has responded with lawsuits barring an April vote from going forward. St. Louis Judge Robert Dierker cited Citizen’s United saying that corporations were people and afforded equal protection under the law.
At Washington University at St. Louis, student began a campus occupation in protest of Peabody CEO Greg Boyce sitting on the university’s board of regents. After a multi-week occupation, seven students were arrested attempting to deliver a letter of protest to the board.
The North American direct action movement against the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas has become a beautiful and powerful thing. This broad-based grassroots movement has organized bold and effective campaigns against companies like Peabody Energy. Movements are often a convergence space where issues and communities align against a greater power bent on exploitation and destruction for short term gain. The movement against Peabody has become this very thing.
As Marshall Johnson, Black Mesa Resident and member of Tonizhoni Ani said: “We need to stand up to Peabody on Black Mesa and here in St. Louis so our children and grandchildren and all future generations can have clean water and clean air. I am grateful to Wash U students for standing up for a respectful future for us all.”
Scott Parkin is an organizer with Rainforest Action Network, Rising Tide North America and the Ruckus Society.