Brookings sit-in urges WU to cut ties with Peabody

| Staff Reporter

Stephen Huber | Student Life

Students march up Brookings Steps on Tuesday to initiate a sit-in encouraging Washington University to cut ties with Peabody Energy. Around 100 students attended a rally Wednesday afternoon to hear statements from alumni and individuals from communities where Peabody has opened mines.

Cradling bowls of homemade chili in their laps as the sun set behind Ridgley Hall, about two dozen students seated in a circle took turns explaining why they were fighting to dissolve Washington University’s ties with Peabody Energy.

About half of those students stayed overnight, under the stars or in tents pitched in the Brookings Archway, in the first campus sit-in since 2005, when students planted themselves in South Brookings Hall for 18 days to secure higher wages for the University’s contract workers.

Now, students are pressuring the University to end its relationship with Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, which participants insist is an “evil” organization actively destroying not only indigenous communities but also the environment. But years of campus protests against “clean coal” have yielded virtually no results, and the administration has given no indication that this time will be different.

The University receives significant funding from the company for research and scholarships. In 2008, Peabody gave the University $5 million to help it create a Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. Greg Boyce, Peabody’s CEO, was named to the University’s board of trustees in 2009.

The school’s research into clean coal, however, goes beyond funding from Peabody; as recently as Tuesday, the school announced that it had received a $3.4 million grant from the Department of Energy to find ways to make coal plants meet the carbon emission standards recently proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Peabody Energy has come under fire from environmental advocacy groups in recent months for attempting to expand its mining facilities in Rocky Branch, Ill. Locals argue that the company is trying to force them out of their homes while also endangering their town by disregarding environmental regulations and working without permits.

In an op-ed in Student Life last week, four students also blasted the company for forcing the relocation of the Navajo and Hopi tribes with its mines in Arizona’s Black Mesa Plateau and supporting the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit group that advocates for Stand Your Ground laws.

Many involved in the sit-in say they are willing to stay for weeks if necessary to achieve productive dialogue. Their “ask” or official goal is to cut ties with Peabody and have Boyce removed from the board of trustees, but participants said they are willing to consider other resolutions involving a University statement saying it does not support Peabody.

The sit-in, which has been in the works for about a month, began at 6 p.m. Tuesday, with a crowd of about 50 undergraduates, alumni, students from other local universities and members of various environmental groups holding signs and rallying as organizers spoke by megaphone.

“This University is supposed to stand for health and for justice,” junior Nancy Yang said at a rally on the Brookings steps Wednesday afternoon. “It’s teaching students about medicine and about how to cure people, but Peabody is a company that is doing a lot of things directly against that.”

Wednesday’s rally brought nearly 100 people to the Brookings steps to hear students and community members offer remarks and read statements from alumni and individuals from communities where Peabody has opened mines.

“I find it a little bit hypocritical that, as we’re expanding the No. 1 social work school in the country and as we’re building a new building for our master’s in public health, that we are inextricably linked to a huge corporation that’s perpetuating these problems, marginalizing communities and making people sick,” senior Megan Odenthal said at the rally.

Students participating in the sit-in have made a point to remain amicable and work with the Washington University Police Department to avoid arrest or referral to the Office of Student Conduct. They went as far as pitching their tents under the Brookings Arch, agreeing to sleep on concrete rather than the grass to avoid being charged for landscaping damage.

The students have designated individuals to act as liaisons to the media, people who pass by and administrators walking through. Director of the First Year Center and Associate Vice Chancellor Rob Wild and Judicial Administrator Tamara King stopped by Tuesday night, and even the chancellor said he walked by on Wednesday morning, though no one noticed.

“I went on my normal walk this morning; I guess I left my residence at about 5:30,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said. “I typically take a walk around campus including the Quadrangle; I saw the students, and they were all sleeping. I didn’t disturb them and my dog didn’t bark at them.”

The sit-in follows a meeting between Green Action members and Wrighton on Monday, where students discussed a Student Union resolution passed on March 19 to divest from fossil fuel companies by 2025. The resolution passed 14-2.

At the meeting, the chancellor acknowledged their concerns but personally disagreed with their argument that the school needs to abandon coal, according to multiple individuals present. He also said that he would forward their concerns to the board of trustees at the May 1 meeting.

“I think the students are addressing a very important concern,” Wrighton said. “We’re talking…about a very long-term challenge.”

He said that, while the University receives most of its research funding from the federal government, the school’s involvement with companies like Peabody also helps it fund important research.

“Corporate partners…have valuable contributions to make, and we value those partnerships,” Wrighton said. “We need to prepare our students to be leaders in society, and that’s a broad statement, but students who are engineers, for example…might go to work for a petroleum company. My view is we need to be able to be in a position to provide the infrastructure and support that is most helpful in fulfilling the potential of our students and faculty.”

But students disagree that the school’s relationship with coal companies is aligned with the school’s mission to “enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country, and the world.”

“If we’re not putting our actions and investments in line with our mission statement, we’re ultimately not living up to our mission statement as a university,” senior Rachel Goldstein, former president of Green Action, said.

Participants hope to maintain a presence of about 15 students throughout the day under the Brookings Arch to hold the space, and they will be making decisions by consensus. They are hoping to meet with the chancellor later this week to discuss what they hope to achieve.

Peabody Energy would not comment directly on the sit-in, but a spokesperson for the company told Student Life in a statement that “Peabody is proud to support Washington University in St. Louis and its leadership in education, as well as in clean coal research.”

Correction: This article previously stated that the $3.4 million grant the University received to study clean coal was partially funded by Peabody Energy; while Peabody is a main sponsor of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, which is also helping to fund the research project, the $3.4 million grant is from the U.S. Department of Energy. Student Life apologizes for the error.

  • DD D

    Trust me I’m an engineer the amount of coals that were burnt in the us is not so significant to hurt people in the us. This protest is so stupid.. I wish they are protesting for Indian and Chinese that’s very grateful.

  • Nick