|Illinois South Project takes on then coal industry||The grass-roots coalition has three major goals: equitable tax assessments, a severance tax on coal sold out of state and the return of reclaimed coal lands to small farmers|
ON PAPER, Southern Illinois is part of the same state as Springfield and Chicago, but the people who live there know better. Below U.S. Route 50 -the state's Mason-Dixon line -- urban sprawl and rich farmland give way to lush rolling hills, mysterious gray-green forests and swamplands where rattlesnakes are harvested. Much of the soil is worn-out clay over which generations of farmers have broken their backs and spirits to scrape a living. And underneath it all is a treasure trove of coal.
But Southern Illinois' treasure has brought the people little lasting prosperity. The region is dotted by once booming coal towns which are now clusters of substandard housing and deserted stores. There are thousands of acres of wasteland -- mined before reclamation laws -- as well as buildings, roads and land damaged by mine subsidence. Worse still is the legacy of suffering: families torn by the deaths, injuries and black lung disease of miners whose lives and health were secondary to production and profit goals.
That indictment of the coal industry comes from the Illinois South Project, a nonprofit organization that acts as an advocate for the people of Southern Illinois in coal and energy related matters. It was founded in 1974 by Dave and Roz Ostendorf and Mike Schechtman, then students at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources. The Arab oil embargo had just sparked a renewed interest in coal. Long scorned in favor of cleaner fuels, coal now seemed to promise salvation from the energy problems, and Southern Illinois seemed to be in for another boom. But the Ostendorfs and Schechtman had a different focus: they wanted to know what the next coal boom would mean to the people in the region. Driving around Southern Illinois, knocking on doors and talking to anyone who would talk, they became convinced nothing much was being done to prevent the new boom from following the old patterns of exploitation.
With seed money from the Illinois South Conference of the United Church of Christ (of which Ostendorf is an ordained minister), the three opened a makeshift office in their joint residence in Carterville. Now, five years later, the Illinois South Project has an office in Herrin, and the staff has grown to six full-time members who operate as a collective, taking turns acting as coordinator.
Illinois South Project started making waves right away. In its first year, it published Coal Gasification in Illinois: Problems for the People. At a time when coal gasification was being hailed as a clean way to use Illinois' high sulfur coal, the handbook sounded a warning that the process would bring problems as well as solutions. Since then, Illinois South has branched out, taking on a variety of projects directed at improving the economic health and quality of life in Southern Illinois. Most, though not all, are directly related to coal and energy issues.
Who's mining the farm?
Who's Mining the Farm? was published in 1978 after six months of research by Illinois South. Described by its subtitle as "A report on the energy corporations' ownership of Illinois land and coal reserves and its implications for rural people and their communities," the publication compiles detailed information about the ownership of nearly 380,000 acres of land in 35 Illinois coal counties. It shows that large, absentee corporations own about 99 percent of that land.
Who's Mining the Farm? brings some strong accusations against the coal industry, both in terms of human suffering and economic exploitation. It identifies three major economic issues as priorities.
The first is inadequate property tax and assessment procedures. The report charges that coal company owned land is often underassessed to begin with and that companies regularly bring massive legal and financial resources to protest their taxes, while the financially strapped counties can't counter those efforts. In Williamson County, for example, the report charges coal companies own almost 12 percent of the land but in 1977 paid only 5.3 percent of total taxes.
The second problem is inadequate compensation to coal mining areas for coal taken from the region, particularly that sold out of state which is not subject to local sales taxes. Illinois South favors a severance tax on coal taken out of state, but that proposal has been rejected by the General Assembly for decades. In 1977, a severance tax bill was passed by both houses, but was vetoed by Gov. James R. Thompson; attempts to override the veto failed. Opponents of such legislation say it would make the market price of Illinois coal uncompetitive.
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The third problem -- and one that Illinois South feels threatens not only the economy but the very social structure of Southern Illinois -- is the increasing amount of reclaimed land being retained and farmed by coal companies. Ironically, this corporate farming is a direct result of tougher federal strip mine reclamation laws, which Illinois South and like-minded groups continue to push for.
"The effects of land acquisition and long-term ownership by the coal industry greatly magnify existing threats to the survival of rural institutions and rural culture," the report warns; it advises, "Steps must be taken now that will assure an orderly transition back to local agriculturally based economies where the farmers own the land they till and do not become modern day sharecroppers, dependent upon the management decisions many miles away in corporate offices of AMAX and Gulf Oil." Family farm legislation, which would limit corporate farming, is one of Illinois South's top priorities this year. It is using one of its favorite tactics, the building of a grass-roots coalition to bring pressure to bear in Springfield. However, like the severance tax, family farm proposals have failed in the General Assembly in the past.
Despite its vigorous objections to some practices of the coal industry, Illinois South is not anti-mining, according to Dave Ostendorf. "We want mining to be developed, but not in a way that's going to destroy the people and the region. We need the economy, but we don't want to be totally ripped up or ripped off by it."
Not surprisingly, the Illinois coal industry doesn't buy that. "The leaders in the Illinois coal industry find it hard to reach any conclusion other than a belief that Illinois South would like to see the coal mining industry fold up shop and call it quits in Illinois," says Taylor Pensoneau, vice president for public relations of the Illinois Coal Association. "Illinois South contends it's working for a betterment of life in Southern Illinois," he said. "If so, it is hard to understand this consistent negativism toward the coal industry." Pensoneau agreed the statistics in Who's Mining the Farm? are accurate, but pointed out that "like many reports, it takes a set of figures and draws misleading and sometimes erroneous conclusions."
Illinois South bases its attitudes toward the coal industry on the assumption that the industry is on the verge of a boom. But the demand for Illinois coal that seemed likely in 1974 has not materialized yet. Pensoneau characterized the industry as fighting for its life. Production in 1978 totaled just over 48.5 million tons, he said, the lowest since 1962. Production has declined annually since 1972, when it hit a peak of 65 million tons, and, according to Pensoneau, "The market is getting narrower all the time." The major reason is the high sulfur content of Illinois coal which runs afoul of environmental regulations and makes it expensive to use. Two big utilities are cutting back severely on their use of Illinois coal this year and are replacing it with lower sulfur western coal that requires less environmental protection equipment. Union Electric Co. of St. Louis will use about two million tons less a year of Illinois coal, and Commonwealth Edison of Chicago will replace from 3.5 to 4.5 million tons a year of Illinois coal with western coal.
Pensoneau specifically attacked the severance tax proposal, pointing out that the tax would further raise the price of Illinois coal. "When a group calls for a coal severance tax, they're calling for an increase in your electric bill," he warned.
Even allowing for strategic overstatement on both sides, it is clear that the Illinois South Project and the coal industry are locked in a classic confrontation: the industry position that "what is good for the industry is good for the state" versus the adversary position that the "industry must be watchdogged and restricted to keep it from 'ripping off and ripping up' the people." Many other industries find themselves in similar confrontations with consumer or environmental groups, but in Southern Illinois the significance of the debate is magnified because of the heavy reliance of the region's economy on a single industry.
Though Who's Mining the Farm? is Illinois South's most visible and certainly its most controversial work, publications and research represent only one facet of the group's activities. "There's no hard and fast rule about what we will and will not take on," said staff member Sue Schwartz.
One of the group's most important roles is to act as a catalyst. "We tend to set up a structure," Schwartz said "[where] people can channel their frustration, their anger, their excitement." Several groups seeded by Illinois South have gone on to develop their own identities. One of the best-known is the Southern Counties Action Movement (SCAM), a feisty group that has lobbied aggressively against utility rate increases. SCAM claims to have influenced the Illinois Commerce Commission (I11CC) to reduce rate hike requests, and it also takes credit for nudging Gov. Thompson into appointing consumer-oriented activist Charles Stalon to an I11CC seat in 1977.
A second group, Stop Tearing Up Our Property (STOP) is determined to reduce strip mine blasting levels in the Hurst-Bush area in Williamson County and force payments for damages they say were caused to homes by blasting done by Consolidation Coal Co. A third group, the State-Wide Citizens Coal ition, was organized to watchdog am lobby for stringent implementation of the Federal Surface Mining Control an Reclamation Act in Illinois.
Despite its role as activist and catalyst, however, Illinois South isn't always "bumping heads and locking horns" with coal companies, according to
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Ostendorf. Much work is done quietly behind the scenes. For example, the group helped the city of Sparta reach an unusual and amicable agreement with Peabody Coal Co. guaranteeing the city revenue and protections from the company. Whenever possible, Illinois South prefers to remain in the background, giving support but letting people fight their own battles. Examples of this "quiet" activity are workshops and conferences where citizens can discuss energy problems, and two farmers' markets (in Carbondale and East St. Louis) where area growers can provide fresh produce at low prices.
'Real' is key word
That Illinois South Project has managed not only to survive but to rack up a list of measurable accomplishments is due largely to the fact that it addresses needs already recognized by the people of the area. Roz Ostendorf gave SCAM as an example. "We didn't have to tell people their bills are too high. We just had to get that anger they already had focused on the target."
Beyond the issues, the group has to deal with another reality: money. In addition to its energy work, educational efforts and other projects, the group spends many hours fundraising. That's the part that dampens their optimism. "We could do everything right and the money might still not be there," Ostendorf said. "It's tight, a constant struggle and it's going to get even tighter." In 1978, 60 percent of the $50,000 budget came from churches with the rest from individual contributors, two small HEW grants and fees for consulting work.
Illinois South leaders are philosophical about the possibility that one day the money won't be there. "Organizations have life cycles," said Schwartz, "but that doesn't diminish what we're doing." They believe Southern Illinois is on the verge of an upswing, and that this time it will be based on a healthier, more diversified economy, attracted in part by the opening of Interstate 57. And they believe the work they have begun will go on, with or without Illinois South Project.
Jessica C. Weber is a free-lance writer living in Southern Illinois; she was formerly a reporter with The State Journal-Register.
22 / May 1979 / Illinois Issues