Students call for a coal-free campus
“Chancellor Wrighton, we be fightin’ till the coal is gone,” chanted a group of about 20 students and community members as they marched through campus from Olin Library to Green Hall with banners full of signatures Tuesday.
As debate about disposable plastic bags on campus gradually fades and Washington University’s month of sustainability approaches its end, the protest against coal energy sources again underscored the issue of sustainability on campus.
More than 70 percent of Wash. U.’s energy comes from coal, according to Post-Peabody St. Louis, the group organizing the protest. Post-Peabody St. Louis includes members of Washington University’s Green Action and two groups from the community, Missourians Organizing for Reform Empowerment (MORE) and Climate Action.
Caroline Burney, junior and co-president of Green Action, said that the march was intended to bring attention to the University’s environmentally unsustainable coal energy source. Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world, provides coal to Ameren, the University’s energy provider.
“We’re going to march through campus very peacefully…[and] make the university aware that students don’t want coal in our school,” Burney said. “Wash. U. has a really big role to play.”
In addition to providing the coal that helps power the University, Peabody funded Washington University’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU). According to senior and Green Action member Dan Cohn, the consortium ultimately serves to shelter Peabody from criticism.
“[Clean coal is] just a marketing term, coal can never really be clean,” Cohn said. “We should be straightforward…instead of saying we are this consortium on clean coal.”
Members of the protest stressed that burning coal as the University’s main energy source is a severe problem both for the environment and for human health. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2006, 53.5 percent of the state of Missouri’s total electricity generated was coal-sourced, accounting for 56.3 percent of the state’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Besides potentially contributing to climate change, coal burning also produces irritant gas associated with the onset of asthma, one of the most common long-term diseases in children. According to the St. Louis Regional Asthma Consortium, one out of every eleven children under the age of 18 in the St. Louis region is currently living with asthma, and 13.3 percent of adults in the area have been diagnosed with asthma.
“I think that if somebody is going to start changing where we get our energy, it has got to be a university like Wash. U.,” said Rachel Goldstein, co-president of Green Action and a junior majoring in environmental sciences. “If we are not taking steps to do that, I don’t know who is going to do it. So I think [students] are the people who need to be the leaders up front.”
“This activity is the beginning of the whole action,” Goldstein added, “[But] it’s a long process from deciding you’re going to do it to implementation.”
Apart from being the lead sponsor of CCCU, Peabody has its top lobbyist, Fred Palmer, sitting on CCCU’s Advisory Board. Moreover, Peabody CEO Greg Boyce sits on Washington University’s Board of Trustees and on the Advisory Committee of I-CARES, the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability, which just held I-CARES Day on Oct. 19.
A staff member who works in Green Hall, who asked that his name not be published because of contractual concerns, shared similar worries. Although he said he appreciates Peabody’s funding to the University, he said he doesn’t think a business agreement should stand in the way of environmental concerns.
“I don’t like seeing [the] University used to enhance a corporate image. I don’t like to see them using an educational institution that I’m pretty proud of just to make themselves look better,” he said.
Micah Tolman, a graduate student in comparative literature, expressed his support for the protest as well.
“I’m all for it,” Tolman said. “If there is more activism on this campus and more activism across the country at university campuses, we probably will be living in a better America.”