Promoting coal education with tax money doesn’t add up

Originally Printed in The Southern

June 20, 2012

This week, June 19-22, Illinois grade school teachers will gather at the Rend Lake Resort near Mount Vernon for the 15th annual Coal Education Conference sponsored by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Each year, IDCEO spends up to $70,000 for this all-expense-paid teachers’ retreat. While our children’s teachers deserve to be recognized for their dedication and hard work, this particular retreat is nothing more than a corporate ploy to advance the coal industry’s “clean coal” message through grade school lesson plans at taxpayer expense.

“From the Coal Mines to the Power Lines” is grades K-12 classroom curriculum developed through a partnership with corporate coal interests such as Knight Hawk Mining Company, Southern Illinois Power Cooperative and the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, with substantial help from state taxes Illinois citizens pay in utility bills. This educational charade contains scores of lessons carefully crafted by the coal industry, advertising coal as the fuel of the future, while cleverly avoiding any serious discussion of the documented economic, health and environmental effects related to the use of coal.

The so-called curriculum is nothing short of industry propaganda designed to create a bias toward coal and away from sustainable, clean energy options for their future. Our children are taught that environmental regulations will significantly raise the cost of producing electricity and that the evidence is not clear that the combustion of fossil fuels has led to a warming climate. They are even taught to create commercial advertisements for coal. The burning of fossil fuels is the single greatest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions to our atmosphere, and coal-fired power plants are accountable for nearly one-third of these emissions in the U.S. The failure to even consider these facts in a curriculum purporting to provide students with a sound and meaningful understanding of coal is inexcusable.

Another failure is the omission that coal-fired power plants are the number one source of man-made pollutants that result in devastating health effects. The air pollution that comes from coal-fired power plants is responsible for over 1,000 heart attacks, hundreds of premature deaths, and thousands of asthma attacks each year in Illinois. Asthma happens to be the number one illness that causes kids to miss school.

The curriculum also fails to teach our children about the dangers of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. It is so severe that nearly every state has adopted a fish consumption advisory that recommends that children and women of childbearing age limit their consumption of wild caught fish because the mercury levels in rivers, lakes and streams are high enough to cause developmental problems in children.

According to the USEPA’s Enforcement and Compliance database (, the track record for the 72 coal mines operating with water pollution permits in Illinois is abysmal. In the last three years, 34 coal mines (47 percent) have been out of compliance with their permit for six months or more and 21 coal mines (29 percent) have been out of compliance with their permit for 12 months or more. At 24 coal combustion waste sites in Illinois, 22 of them have caused groundwater pollution. Yet, nowhere in the taxpayer-subsidized curriculum are the children taught about the impacts to Illinois surface waters from coal mining and coal combustion waste.

Children are the population that is most vulnerable to the effects of coal pollution, now and into the future. Our children deserve to learn all the facts so they can be prepared for making informed decisions about their future energy choices. If our tax dollars are going to teach young people about coal, then let’s tell them the whole truth, not a one-sided, biased and self-serving story contrived for the benefit of Illinois economic interests and the coal industry.

TERRI TREACY is conservation field representative with Sierra Club Illinois Chapter and part of Heartland Coalfield Alliance.

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