Community organizers hope to mobilize students with Peabody facing bankruptcy
Peabody Energy Corporation, a St. Louis-based energy company with close ties to Washington University, may soon file for bankruptcy, according to a recent securities filing.
Peabody cited a decreasing worldwide demand for coal and stricter industry regulations as reasons why the company is unsure of its fate. Peabody’s main issue is its large amount of debt, acquired from a 2011 $5.2 billion purchase of Australian coal company, Macarthur Coal Ltd., according to a March 25 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Washington University maintains strong ties with Peabody due to donations from the corporation, as well as through a seat on the Board of Trustees filled by former Peabody CEO Greg Boyce. This relationship that has been repeatedly called into question through student protests due to the harsh environmental and community impacts of the company’s expansive hold on the coal industry.
After a 17-day student-led occupation of the Brookings Quadrangle archway, seven students were arrested on May 2, 2014 while attempting to enter the quarterly Board of Trustees meeting to deliver a letter requesting Boyce’s resignation.
One of the seven students arrested in 2014, Caitlin Lee, who graduated in 2015, has remained involved in the battle against Peabody and now works for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), a group that aims to give voice to the historically disenfranchised through community organizing.
Lee believes that Peabody’s involvement in University affairs is problematic.
“By holding that position on the Board of Trustees, Peabody is holding a leadership position in our University,” Lee said. “In holding that position, Wash. U. is aligning itself with all the horrible stuff that [Peabody] does, and our institution becomes one that is propping itself up on the backs of hundreds of years of exploitation.”
Ida H. Early, secretary to the Board of Trustees, declined to comment on Boyce’s position as both a Peabody executive and board member.
“Peabody as a company donated funds to research projects, not to the Board of Trustees,” Early wrote in an email.
In 2010, Peabody received a 10 year, $61 million tax break from the city of St. Louis, in an effort to keep its headquarters located in the city. The money was reportedly allocated to upgrading office equipment and improvements to the company’s offices.
“This tax break was cloaked in the language of job creation, and at that point the downtown headquarters of Peabody employed 500 people, most of whom work out in St. Louis County,” Lee said.
According to Lee, close to 360 people currently work in Peabody’s headquarters due to large scale layoffs, and that the large tax break the company received took $2 million worth of funding from the St. Louis public school system.
“The St. Louis teachers union has said it’s the equivalent of 300 jobs over 10 years,” Lee added.
Vic Svec, Peabody’s spokesman and senior vice president of global investor and corporate relations, told the Post-Dispatch that the company does not intend to leave St. Louis in the near future.
“Coal is going to be around for a long time, and Peabody is going to be around for a long time,” Svec told the Post-Dispatch.