Local activists protest coal giant’s presence in Columbia

“Normally, we hear about phasing coal and fossil fuels out, but Columbia phased coal in,” organizer Gretchen Maune said.

Columbia has been increasing its renewable energy portfolio, but it is also in a 40-year contract with Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world. At a meeting Thursday evening, members of Grass Roots Organizing voiced concerns about the economic and environmental impacts of Peabody’s controversial practices.

“Normally, we hear about phasing coal and fossil fuels out, but Columbia phased coal in,” GRO Organizer Gretchen Maune said.

In 2001, Peabody built the Prairie State Energy Campus, a coal power plant and mine in western Illinois. Completed in 2012, the plant can produce 1,600 megawatts of power. Peabody sold shares of the plant to over 200 municipalities across the U.S.

Columbia bought 50 mW of power, the fourth-largest share in Missouri. Maune and GRO have been active around Columbia protesting Columbia’s contract with Peabody. Maune said a two percent increase in electric utilities rates in October is due to Columbia’s contract.

“Electricity rates in Columbia have been raised over and over,” she said. “That two percent increase can mean not being able to buy a jug of milk for your kids. It can mean making some hard choices between paying your gas and electric, or your credit card bills.”

Arielle Klagsbrun, of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, said Peabody is a corporate giant with a long history of being a bad guy, citing practices like strip mining and mountaintop removal, mining on Hopi and Navajo Black Mesa land and denying pensions to thousands of United Mine Workers Association members.

Since municipalities entered in agreements to use the Prairie State plant’s electricity, several have been on the verge of bankruptcy. In September, due to long power outages at Prairie State, Fulton was experiencing a $500,000 deficit in that year’s budget. In Kentucky, the city of Paducah is contemplating bankruptcy to avoid the crushing cost. In Illinois, Batavia has filed a class-action lawsuit against Peabody, accusing the company of misrepresenting construction and electricity costs, which ballooned from an estimate of about $2 million to $5.5 million, members of GRO said during the meeting.

“At the root of all of this is Peabody, ripping off local communities and anyone smaller than them,” Klagsbrun said.

GRO member Jeff Frey helped organize a petition to request a public hearing about Columbia’s contract with Peabody.

“I value the environment and I think we need to think hard about what we’re doing to it,” Frey said. “A lot of the energy here is owned by the Boomer generation, by the older generation; they need to divest that power and pass the decisions on to us. It’s our future.”

Maune said she hopes to speak in the public comments session of the City Council meeting March 16 and bring Peabody to the attention of more Columbians.

She said every resident of Columbia should care about this issue, including students.

“Even though students may not live in Columbia very often, if students are paying any electric bill or if it’s part of their rent, they’re paying for this coal power,” Maune said. “If we change it, their bills and their rent won’t be as high. So speak up about it and if you care about it, make it change.”

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