By CARL GREEN
St. Louis – Peabody Energy officials last month were faced with a coalition of people demanding that their interests be protected during the company’s upcoming bankruptcy proceedings.
The “Just Transition” movement doesn’t want only the corporate executives to be compensated, but also the many thousands of retirees relying on company pensions and health care.
They also want environmental cleanups in locations that have been degraded by Peabody mining operations, notably in southern Illinois and Native American lands of the American southwest.
And they want $2 million in tax breaks returned to the St. Louis city schools.
The diverse group of about 200 ralliers – many of them Navajo (Dine’) and Hopi tribe members – gathered at St. Louis City Hall on Tuesday, April 19, then marched a couple of blocks east to Peabody Plaza to confront the company.
“Peabody energy is responsible for devastation to workers, impacting communities, water and land in southern Illinois and other mining communities,” Nabeehah Azeez, an organizer for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), told the group at the City Hall rally.
“The bankruptcy of Peabody energy will likely result in the loss of jobs, the loss of worker pensions and the loss of health care for everyday people who are already struggling to make a living,” she added.
‘MILK MONEY AUDITORIUM’
Ray Cummings of American Federation of Teachers Local 420 explained how $61 million in tax breaks the city provided to Peabody in 2010 included $2 million from St. Louis schools. That money could have protected 300 union jobs, he said.
“We ended up with a ‘Peabody Auditorium’ that should have been called the ‘St. Louis Schoolchildren’s Milk Money Auditorium’ ” he told the rally. “I was pleading at that time, but I’m not pleading now. I’m demanding that they return that $2 million.”
Southern Illinois activist Georgia de la Garza spoke for the small community of Rocky Branch in Saline County, where residents are ill from working in mines, retirees are concerned about their pensions, and blasting and mining still continues as close as 300 feet from people’s homes.
“Everyone in that community has been in the hospital, believe me, or else they’d be here today,” she told the Labor Tribune in an interview while walking down Market Street. “They are recuperating from bypass surgery, heart attacks, strokes, aortic aneurisms, hair falling out, skin cancer.
“Two of our residents fell and broke their hips during blasts, and they’re now in nursing homes. It’s just unbelievable what’s happening,” she added. “How would you feel living 300 feet from constant explosions? I think that’s like terrorism, isn’t it? That’s how we feel. It’s constant. You can’t sleep. The noise is loud, the lights are bright, 24-7. It’s very difficult.
“The stress levels are very high there. Will the people get compensated? No, they’re not getting compensated. Their property values have gone down, they can’t sell their homes, they have nothing. They’ve been left without anything.”
In front of the Peabody building, she joined other speakers demanding that company officials come out.
“How are you going to compensate the people?” she demanded. “We want compensation. We want some humanity back. We want to restore our faith in you, Peabody – and we want you to transition into renewable energy.”
THE HOLY MAN
Howard Dennis, a Hopi holy man from Second Mesa, AZ, in the Black Mesa mining area, was among the leaders who spent two days traveling to St. Louis to join in the rally. He spoke of concern over workers, retirees and the damage mining has done their land.
“I feel that the bankruptcy is just another way of letting them get out of all their debt and, of course, their injustice to the environment,” he told the Labor Tribune. “And I feel for the people here; they’re going to lose their jobs, too.
“I was reading a newspaper article that said Peabody top executives received $8 million, $11 million each. That’s what really gets me. I can’t even comprehend the figures. They can afford to pay them, but they can’t afford to repair the injustice that they’ve done to the land.”
He said Peabody’s coal slurries have depleted the Navajo Aquifer, the region’s traditional source of clean water.
“It’s already taken its toll on the water,” he said. “They’ve taken out so much that it’s caused our aquifer to collapse, and now it’s contaminated, so now we have arsenic in our water.”
That water, among other uses, is crucial to Hopi religious ceremonies, he said.
The coalition demanded creation of a “Just Transition Fund” in the bankruptcy proceedings and issued a list of needs it would address including:
• To fully fund Peabody and Patriot coal worker pensions and health care plans.
• To halt forced relocations and harassment of the Dine’ people in northern Arizona.
• To guarantee funding for cleanup and reclamation of mined lands and polluted aquifers used by Peabody.
• To support damaged communities in their transition from relying on the coal industry to self-sufficiency and renewable energy, including community health care funds.
• For southern Illinois, the group is also seeking – among other demands – land reclamation for farmland, restoration of a key road, funding for counseling clinics for residents suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome caused by mining near their homes, and return to Native Americans of extracted human remains and artifacts.
The United Mineworkers of America did not participate in the rally, but its president, Cecil Roberts, was in Washington last month testifying to a Senate committee for a plan to provide additional funding to the miners’ pension plan and health care.
He said the plan has been well-managed but is under stress from the bankruptcies of several coal companies. If it failed, it could pull down the federal Pension Benefit and Guaranty Corp. with it, he said.
“This is a desperate time for coal miners,” he said. “The coal miners in this country have been promised these benefits, they have earned these benefits, and they have sacrificed greatly to this nation so all of us can have a better way of life.
“The thing to remember about coal miners is that they are sicker than the rest of us. It’s a very dangerous environment, and their medical bills are higher than those of the average person.”
Without action by Congress, Roberts said, some 21,000 miners will lose their health care this year, and 90,000 stand to lose pension benefits if the plan fails.