The United States is in the middle of a massive transition away from burning coal for energy and toward a cleaner, healthier more sustainable future. Cleaner energy means cleaner air and water, but a transition away from coal also means a sometimes difficult and unnerving change.
What happens to the people who mine the coal and work in coal plants and what happens to the smaller communities, like East Alton, that are hit with a massive loss of tax base?
These are the real-life questions many communities in Illinois face if they do not prepare for this inevitable transition. Looking at the coal industry, we see many companies either at or nearing bankruptcy while coal miners fight to keep their hard-earned pensions and mining communities begin to wrestle with the cost of cleaning up old coal mines. The issues communities face overlap and intertwine, forcing us all to deal with a declining market and an oftentimes bad neighbor.
For the last couple of years, Sierra Club members, with allies across the state and in the Alton area, have been calling on our elected officials to plan a way forward through transition. Preparing for coal plant retirement as a community could mean a path with a retirement date set years in advance so communities could begin working together to rebuild the tax base, attract new industry and transition jobs for workers in a market where jobs are needed. Our commitment to preparing for transition is one of the reasons we held a town hall forum, co-hosted by the mayors of the Riverbend, as soon as we heard Dynegy’s East Alton plant was closing.
Sierra Club members have also been calling for our local legislators to support the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill (HB 2607/SB 1485), a piece of legislation that would create 32,000 jobs in Illinois each year from 2020-2030, with 1,607 of those 32,000 jobs right here in the Metro East. Not only that, the Clean Jobs Bill would include funding for coal communities like ours going through a tough transition and in need of funding. But our local legislators, Sen. Haine and Rep. Beiser, have refused to sign on to the bill.
At the federal level, we’re advocating for Congress to fund President Obama’s Power Plus Program, which would provide transition funds to communities in the midst of transition as well as supporting the RECLAIM Act (HR 4456), aimed at bringing more than $100 million per year for 5 years into Illinois for economic development projects at abandoned coal mines.
Our future does not have to be burdened with these difficult stages of transition if we all work together to support our coal communities. The clean energy industry is booming all around us and I’m confident that together, with smart action and sound policy, our future can be bright, too.
Elizabeth Scrafford is the Central and Downstate Illinois organizer with the Sierra Club.