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Student organizer Caroline Burney and journalist Jeff Biggers join us discuss the more than week long sit-in against Washington University’s ties with Peabody Energy, the largest private coal mining company in the world

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Hundreds of students at Washington University in St. Louis have entered the second week of an occupation of a school administration building, protesting the school’s ties with Peabody Energy. It’s one of the world’s largest private coal mining companies, and its chairman and chief executive officer, Gregory Boyce, is on the school’s board of trustees.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.

We’re joined by one of the occupiers, Caroline Burney. She’s a senior at Washington University and studying environmental policy. She’s been active in the Fossil Free divestment campaign and currently one of the student organizers on the ground that’s sitting in to protest Peabody.

We’re also joined by Jeff Biggers. He’s an American Book Award-winning journalist, an historian, author of several books, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. He is the grandson of a union coal miner in Southern Illinois, which is affected by Peabody Energy, longtime chronicler of the coal industry. His recent piece is “Why the Great Wash U Sit-In against Peabody Coal Matters”.

Thank you both for joining us.

So, Caroline, I understand that over this past week and almost a half now, you’ve gotten a lot of attention from the media, from administration, from other students, and they’ve asked you, essentially, why you’re doing this and why you think this sit-in is an effective strategy.

CAROLINE BURNEY, WASH. U. STUDENTS AGAINST PEABODY: Yes. So, for many years now, Wash. U. has had a relationship with Peabody Energy, since Greg Boyce, Peabody’s CEO, was placed on the board of trustees in 2009. And since 2009, students have been actively organizing against Peabody on campus. We’ve sort of gone through all of the traditional means of campus organizing, collecting signatures for petitions, passing student resolutions, meeting with the chancellor. And yet nothing has changed. And as climate change escalates and as it becomes a major issue for young people in my generation, we’ve realized we really can’t wait and that we need to escalate our tactics and show the administration that students really care about this issue and that we’re angry that the university has such close ties to this corporation that not only propagates climate change but destroys the communities in which they mine.

NOOR: And, Jeff, you’ve written about the history of the coal industry and protests against it. Talk about why you say this protest matters and why it’s historic.

JEFF BIGGERS, JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: You know, I really consider it a watershed event for three reasons. I think the first and foremost is that it’s a sustained sit-in. It’s day after day after day. And it’s growing. It really taps into this groundswell that I feel is growing across the country that says, we can’t just do one-day protests and have photo ops; we have to do sustained sit-ins that really matter, that’s really going to gain people’s attention, and that literally says we’re not going away until we have action.

The second reason that it makes it a watershed event is that Wash. U. is really in ground zero of climate change denial. This is really the belly of the beast. St. Louis is the city of some of the largest coal companies in the world, not just Peabody, but Arch Coal and Patriot and Forsyth, and of course Monsanto.

The third reason is these students are teaching an amazing lesson to the rest of the nation. The IPCC climate change report came out last week, of course, and said we need immediate action. And yet there has always been this gap between science and action: we know climate change is affecting it; we’re not doing anything. And these students are literally holding up this great question to the rest of the nation, saying we have to close the gap, we have to have immediate action, we have to stop this kind of acceleration of coal mining, it’s not only destroying our countries and so much of our nation and globally but also our atmosphere. And they’re basically saying the big question: which side are you on?

NOOR: And, Caroline, I wanted to turn back to you. Talk more about Peabody’s relationship with your school. I understand they fund research at the college’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. Is that an issue for you as well?

BURNEY: Yeah. So Peabody’s relationship with Wash. U. is relatively recent. Greg Boyce was placed on the board of trustees in 2009. And shortly before that, Peabody, Arch Coal, and Ameren, the local utility here in St. Louis, donated $5 million to fund the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. And so these were one of the original issues that students have been organizing, saying, as a university that prides itself on its commitment to global health and the environment, how can we propagate the myth that coal can ever be clean? So students have been resisting the idea of the consortium and pushing for the name to be changed. So that’s sort of one of the major issues that we organize around, and all of our asks are trying to push the administration to change the name of this consortium and move away from the idea that coal can be clean and move away from the idea that the university is supporting the industry and using industry terms, when we know that coal does, obviously, terrible things to the environment. But also the effects are things that we’re really worried about.

NOOR: And, Jeff, talk more about this company, Peabody Energy. You note in your recent piece that Rolling Stone wrote, the CEO, Greg Boyce, might be one of the biggest obstacles to meaningful climate change in the world. They recently launched this multimillion dollar campaign to build awareness and support to end, quote, the world’s number one human and environmental crisis of global energy poverty, promoting coal as a clean resource. And they’ve also had vast extraction projects in Southern Illinois, which you’ve documented and where you have family.

BIGGERS: Right. I think there are a few other countries in the world that have such a legacy of ruin as Peabody Energy. And my family understands this first and foremost. Mr. Peabody himself, Francis Peabody, sank his first coal mine in our area of Southern Illinois in 1895, and since then he has taken this same sense of exploitation and plunder around the United States and around the world.

This legacy of ruin really touches on five major areas. The labor movement: just last year, of course, the Wash. U. students came together in solidarity with retired coal miners who had lost their health benefits in a bankruptcy scheme that Peabody was a part of. And once again it reminded us that still today three coal miners die daily from black lung disease, a disease that affected my own grandfather that we have complete denial about.

The second area is a level of human rights. Last year, Wash. U. once again came to the forefront in solidarity of protest with people from the Navajo Nation, who came from Black Mesa to talk about the very bitter legacy of destruction on Black Mesa, when thousands of people, close to 14,000 people, were relocated over many decades due to the massive strip mines in Arizona.

The third area, of course, is the environment, that Peabody has been so destructive. Even today in my Southern Illinois, in my own Eagle Creek area, in an area that has been completely destroyed by strip mining and has depopulated, there are still today environmental discharges and violations and abandoned mines and whatnot that we’re still having to deal with Peabody, who left this really disastrous environmental ruin. And, of course, the new issue is they’re expanding strip mining in Rocky Branch, in Southern Illinois, which really is one of the great examples of out-and-out destruction. Here’s a small little farming community that is overwhelmingly against an expanding strip mine, and now Peabody has worked to not only change their road, to destroy their forest, but ultimately to be doing blasting and mining within a few hundred feet of these people’s homes that ultimately will force them to go away, and have left them in a really disastrous situation.

The fifth area I think we have to really talk about is Peabody’s global impact. And I think, as you suggest now, they’re trying to have this outrageous scam that somehow they’re working on energy poverty, but the truth is they’re leading the plunder of massive coal mining operations in Indonesia at the very time that we desperately need the carbon-sinking great tropical forest. They’re leading massive mining operations in Mongolia. They’re doing massive mining operations in Australia, where even Peabody workers are going on strike due to working conditions. And they’re really leading the charge of climate denial that is setting back our nation by a decade. And I think that is, again, why this protest is so important, not just for St. Louis, not just for Southern Illinois, but for the nation and the planet itself.

NOOR: And, Caroline, I wanted to end with you. You’ve been there for almost one and a half weeks now. How long do you plan on staying there? I know you recently met with your school’s chancellor. Tell us a little bit about what he said. And, finally, I wanted to get you to respond to what Peabody Energy says, that in fact through clean coal, as they call it, they can help end poverty and help stop further environmental catastrophe.

BURNEY: Yeah. So we are in a sustained sit-in, so we are going to stay in until we feel that our chancellor has heard us and is willing to negotiate.

That being said, when we met with him on Saturday, we saw that he still fundamentally disagrees with us. And he continues to use these industry terms to talk about coal and talk about the way that coal will be used for years to come. He maintains his commitment that the university should be doing clean coal research, and does not appear to be weakening his ties to Peabody and Greg Boyce, at least when we talked to him on Saturday.

But that being said, we’ve talked to many other administrators since that time and we feel that our voice and our message is getting across on campus and that we need to keep pushing and we need to find new allies in this fight, not only on campus, but on a national level.

And so we think that this fight here at Wash. U. is really symbolic, because, yeah, we’re in the belly of the beast of the coal industry. We have Peabody and Arch headquartered here, and that students here are pushing against this, a school that is represented by CEOs from Peabody and Arch and Monsanto, and that if we’re escalating and if we can win, that this is a huge win for divestment campaigns and climate campaigns all across the country.

NOOR: And, Caroline, you know, Peabody Energy, they just launched this multimillion dollar campaign saying that their technology is clean and it can help end poverty and will help reduce in the environmental impact because it’s so clean, especially in poor communities around the world. Last point. Please respond to that.

BURNEY: Yeah. We’ve seen Peabody’s ad campaigns bottom-lined by the PR firm that has also supported big tobacco in saying that cancer–or that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And so, while I think that their campaign is ridiculous, we’re also trying to focus our efforts on sort of just standing in solidarity with these communities, just breaking through these lies that the coal industry is propagating and breaking through this myth that coal can ever be clean and that they’re solving energy poverty, when we know in the communities where they mine, in Rocky Branch, where Saline County officials just granted Peabody access to a road yesterday, that coal is never clean and that they’re not solving energy poverty or deepening poverty.

NOOR: Jeff Biggers and Caroline Burney, thank you so much for joining us.

BURNEY: Thank you.

BIGGERS: Thanks for your time.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. Go to for all of our coverage against the fightback against environmental devastation.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Caroline Burney

Caroline Burney is a senior at Washington University of Saint Louis studying environmental policy. She has been active in the fossil free divestment campaign and she's currently one of the student organizers on the ground sitting-in to protest Peabody Energy.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is an American Book Award-winning journalist and historian, and author of several books, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. He is also the grandson of a union coal miner in southern Illinois, and a long-time chronicler of the coal industry. Website: