Students call on Wash. U. to cut ties with Peabody Energy

This article is cross-posted from Washington University in St Louis's student paper Student Life. It originally appeared on April 1, 2014 as an Op-Ed, written by Rachel Goldstein, David Binstock, Madeleine Balchan, Jamal Sadrud-Din.

In light of recent behavior by Peabody Energy, we are disappointed to see this corporation continuing to act in its own self-interest, in staunch opposition to the will of the people and at the expense of the public good. We are calling on this university to end its partnership with Peabody Energy.

On Feb. 11, as a result of a suit filed by Peabody, a judge ruling placed a temporary injunction on the city-wide “Take Back St. Louis” ballot initiative. This initiative, which was brought to the Board of Elections with 36,000 signatures, called for the city to end tax incentives to fossil-fuel extraction corporations, and invest public money and lands into renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. Peabody filed for suit against the initiative, claiming discrimination, and the judge ruled in their favor, citing equal protection to constitutional rights under Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling of which even President Obama has been outwardly critical. This legal action has kept the initiative off of the April 8 ballot.

Elsewhere, in Saline County, Ill., Peabody’s expansion of a mining operation is threatening the local farming community of Rocky Branch. Despite strong opposition from the community, Peabody has continued its aggressive logging of the proposed site, and is attempting to take control of and divert important local roads. Community members are so threatened that they are now blockading the roads to deter Peabody. Residents are also worried about the fate of their town if coal mining operations expand, having witnessed and tolerated the blasting, hazardous coal dust, and polluted waterways of the neighboring Cottage Grove strip mine.

These are not the first instances of unethical or exploitative behavior by Peabody, but it provides an opportune moment for the Washington University community to reflect on its relationship with unscrupulous corporations.

Peabody Energy has a long history of questionable behavior:

•As the world’s largest private sector coal company, it is estimated to be solely accountable for 0.86 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

•Their coal mining operation in the Black Mesa Plateau in Arizona, has led to the forced relocation of thousands of the local native Navajo and Hopi tribes, and the draining and polluting of the natural aquifer there.

•The company’s past mining operations in Appalachia included the intrusive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which has dire impacts on Appalachian communities.

•Peabody is a large supporting member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), having a representative on their Private Enterprise Advisory Council. ALEC is a strong advocate of various controversial pieces of legislation, including “Stand Your Ground” laws and strict immigration laws.

•From union busting to consistently unsafe mining conditions, Peabody has a long history of mistreating its workers. In 2007, they offloaded thousands of retiree pension plans and healthcare benefits to a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012, defaulting on all of those monetary obligations.

As students and future alumni, we are uncomfortable having such close ties to this amoral company, and call upon Washington University to cut them. Although the exact nature of our relationship is unknown as donor records are not disclosed, we do know the following: our relationship with Peabody dates only to the mid-2000s; Gregory Boyce, CEO of Peabody, has been a chairman on our Board of Trustees since 2009; William Rusnack, another Peabody executive, is on the National Council of Olin Business School; and Peabody partners with Wash. U. and others in promoting the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. Regarding this last point, we disapprove of Wash. U.’s aid in green-washing the fossil fuel industry through use of a misleading industry term, not the research itself.

We want to be confident in the University’s commitment to its mission statement, which claims we must “strive to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country, and the world…to provide an exemplary, respectful, and responsive environment for living, teaching, learning, and working for present and future generations…to judge ourselves by the most exacting standards.“

We want to feel confident that our tuition dollars and donations are going to a university that is committed to global stewardship and service to humanity, and that does not condone irresponsible corporate behavior by association and cooperation with companies like Peabody Energy. Washington University cannot reach its full potential as a leader in progress, innovation, learning and public service if we are held down by commitments to companies like Peabody Energy. We may not be able to stop such corporations from doing what they will, but we can certainly stop our passive acceptance and our implicit role in their actions.

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