As state efforts to spur a new clean energy economy in Southern Illinois coal country run up against reality, residents in the far southern part of the state are coming up with their own visions for what a just transition looks like.
This story is co-published by the Energy News Network and The Southern Illinoisan.
Alfred “Earl” Pryor grew up in the tiny town of Ullin, one of several enclaves nestled amid the lush, tangled forests and cypress swamps in far Southern Illinois. The area has been home to generations of African American families, some of whose relatives arrived when it was a staging ground for freed slaves after the Civil War.
The region is known as “Little Egypt” because of the fertile delta formed by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Those waterways have also been pivotal to moving the area’s top export: coal. Today, as power plant closures loom and mining employment declines, the region can feel like a landscape frozen in time, where vacant but once-majestic brick buildings line crumbling commercial strips and overgrown yards obscure the peeling paint on homes.
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Pryor sees the past, in the people and roads he’s known his whole life, but also the future: wind turbines and solar farms rising up from the flood-prone land abutting levees and bayous. A shuttered super-maximum security prison reimagined as a restorative justice hub and clean energy job training center. Electric vehicles moving goods between a Mississippi River port and energy-efficient warehouses powered by renewables.
“There’s so much you could do here,” says Pryor wistfully. “So much land, so much possibility.”
In state capitols and think tank meeting rooms, a rosy picture has often been painted of the “just transition,” in which workers laid off from coal mines or power plants are retrained to install solar panels or tighten building envelopes. In Southern Illinois, this scenario seldom actually plays out, despite state laws meant to deliver clean energy workforce training and accelerator programs to areas affected by coal’s phase-out.
Meanwhile, the idea of a just transition looks different in communities that never benefited from fossil fuels in the first place. People like Pryor are taking a more DIY and holistic approach envisioning a clean and just future. To them, it doesn’t necessarily mean funneling coal workers directly into clean energy jobs, but rather bolstering an entire region’s economy and providing opportunities for those who never had a chance to secure plum jobs at coal mines or power plants.
Old toxins, new hopes
Earl’s grandfather, James Edward “Snooky” Pryor, was a famous blues harmonica player who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago — after playing bugle for the Army during World War II — then moved down to rural Southern Illinois.
Along with being a musician, Snooky was a carpenter, as was his son — Earl Pryor’s father. Pryor naturally followed in their footsteps learning to build, but he had an even wider-ranging curiosity. He was a “nerdy kid” who loved science and jumped at the chance to attend an Upward Bound camp.
Today, Pryor lives in Carbondale — an hour’s drive north of his hometown but a world away. As the name implies, Carbondale was built on coal — a thriving railroad hub connecting the region’s coal mines to Chicago 300 miles north, and other cities where coal powered burgeoning industry.
Black people had few opportunities to work at mines or power plants. Instead, they were more likely to be employed by Koppers, once the largest wood-treatment plant in the world, where railroad ties were treated with creosote, arsenic and other preservatives. It was one of the few places employing Black men, but workers and their families living nearby suffered many cases of cancer and other illness attributed to the toxic chemicals that soaked their skin and clothes.
Pryor’s small weather-beaten house and rambling yard sit a few blocks from the former Koppers property. After a federal cleanup, the site is now gated off and covered in trees, wildflowers and brush. Pryor and other residents of the surrounding economically struggling, largely African American neighborhood see the site as an ongoing reminder of the racism and exploitation that have long characterized Southern Illinois.
This feeling boiled to the surface five years ago when a Delaware-based environmental remediation firm proposed a large solar farm on the property.
The idea captured Pryor’s imagination. He remembered the sense of wonder he felt using a tiny solar panel to ignite a flashlight back in high school shop class, and he dreamed of other ways to harness the power of the sun. He called the company’s CEO and asked how he could help.
Pryor’s neighbors felt quite differently. They were terrified that the development would stir up contamination from the site and endanger them all over again. And they resented a process that left them feeling ignored and disregarded. After contentious meetings and debates, the city council voted 7-0 against the proposal.
“It was a lack of communication. The community just didn’t understand that it was safe, and they could have benefited from the energy and the jobs,” Pryor said.
Constructing and creating
Pryor was the first in his family to go to college, studying social science and earning an associate degree at local community colleges. He was fascinated by people’s motivations and behavior, but realized social science wasn’t the way to provide for his family.
Like his father, he was a union carpenter and worked for companies hanging drywall and building the massive Olmsted Dam on the Ohio River. He loved the work but struggled with injuries and being a Black worker in the mostly white labor union notorious for exclusion. He’d sometimes feel his stomach tightening as darkness fell during his overnight shifts at the dam, feeling something bad could happen to him.
Soon Pryor decided he was ready to strike out on his own. When his wife gave birth to their fifth child, and first son, he became especially focused on building generational wealth.
“I know what a good career can do for a minority family,” Pryor said. “Not just a job, a good career. I want to create something for my son to take on, and partner with unions and companies to create that career path for youth.”
He established a general contracting firm, printing fluorescent orange T-shirts emblazoned with “Pryor Contracting LLC” and an image of the skeleton of the towering Southern Illinois University student service center, the last big project he helped build. Now his property overflows with the tools of his trade — trucks, drills and hammers, a rusting skid-steer, piles of scrap wood. He acquired the grassy lots on either side of the home, and copious notes he keeps in a leather folder describe the ambitious plans he has for the land.
Railroad tracks run right behind the house, shaking it when a train barrels by, and a depot with derelict grain elevators is just beyond Pryor’s property line. That means this could be an ideal place for delivering solar panels and other components for clean energy construction, as he envisions it. Youth could train in assembling solar panels and energy efficiency equipment on the other side of the house, and the finished products could be installed in Carbondale or shipped back out on the railroad.
And that’s only the beginning.
Looking back, forging ahead
As Pryor drives south from Carbondale deep into the heart of Southern Illinois, every twist in the increasingly narrow road elicits memories of his childhood and dreams of what could be. The road snakes through the “sun-down towns,” where Black people knew they had to leave before dark — like 450-population Anna, whose name was long known to signify “Ain’t No (n-word) Allowed.”
Then come the Black enclaves like Klondike and Future City, where Pryor knows almost everyone. And Tamms, a scattering of small farms also home to the state’s infamous Supermax prison where inmates — mostly Black and from Chicago — were kept in perpetual solitary confinement, until a human rights campaign shut the place down.
In many of these little towns, Pryor sees a landscape of opportunity based on clean energy, boosted by a new port that is proposed on the Ohio River north of its confluence with the muddier Mississippi.
If plans proceed, the new port is expected to create a flurry of jobs and bolster local infrastructure around Cairo, a dilapidated town on the banks of the Ohio River. Peeling Victorian homes and grandiose, now-vacant buildings like the Gem Theatre hint at an illustrious past. Railroads eventually bypassed Cairo and an especially virulent spate of racist violence sent the town on a downward spiral. Today the few businesses still open include a video poker joint, car wash and liquor store.
Pryor once worked on this stretch of river, connecting up the long lines of barges carrying coal, grain, and gravel between the Gulf of Mexico and inland ports. Once the port is built, he envisions a revived Cairo, electric trucks plying side routes and barges blanketed in solar panels that could float between portside berths providing clean power.
The right government support could spark an economic revival, he thinks, with the new port dovetailing with blossoming solar and wind farms and green logistics centers, creating local jobs and clean energy all while preserving the lush natural ecology.
Promises and pitfalls
As it happens, a law passed last fall commits Illinois’s government to invest heavily in clean energy and ensure the benefits go to communities that have borne the burden of fossil fuels. That means places like Southern Illinois, where for generations coal miners have labored and sometimes died below ground, and family farmers have seen their land collapse and their water polluted by mining.
Illinois is the fourth-largest coal-producing state in the nation, with overseas exports driving the market for the state’s “dirty,” high-sulfur coal. The highly mechanized long-wall mining method used in many Illinois mines means there are far fewer mining jobs than in decades past, and there are no longer unionized mines in the state.
The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) passed in September requires the state’s dozen privately-owned coal plants to close by 2030, a mandate that drew much ire from downstate legislators and residents, though most coal plants will actually close even sooner because of market forces. The massive Southern Illinois Power Cooperative coal plant outside Carbondale shut down its main unit in 2020, laying off 26 workers.
“There is a widespread perception in rural communities in Illinois that we’re just getting left behind,” said William Higgs, 25, who hosts a weekly radio show on WDBX, a community radio station broadcast out of a cozy house not far from Pryor’s. “They’re just going to come in, shut down our mine, shut down our plants and leave us high and dry. Because in the past, that’s what policymakers have done to rural communities here. And that’s what businesses have done to the rural communities here.”
Higgs grew up in Harrisburg east of Carbondale, in the heart of coal-mining country. He remembers when representatives of coal giant Peabody visited his high school to recruit and “patronizingly” asked students to name things that coal had given them. “Pollution!” Higgs yelled out. He got detention and was threatened with suspension.
Some of his classmates went on to work in coal mines; Higgs worked at the automotive manufacturer Aisin until he was laid off during the pandemic. He had a growing interest in environmentalism and looked up relevant jobs online. He applied for and won a position with Elevate, the Chicago-based nonprofit tasked with carrying out equity components of CEJA and a prior law, the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA).
As a community resource coordinator, Higgs’ job is to spread the gospel of clean energy and spark interest in energy efficiency and solar programs created by the laws. On a Friday morning in the studio where CDs, vinyl records and street festival posters line the walls, Higgs opines about bills pending in the legislature. He’s unhappy about a proposal to define biofuels and other fuel sources as renewable, allowing them to collect subsidies along with wind and solar.
“These are capitulations to the fossil fuel interests and to the interests of large manufacturers in the face of an imminent climate crisis,” Higgs tells his listeners.
The results of the state’s workforce training and contractor programs have been lackluster so far. Critics complained the initial programs were poorly administered and few graduates got solar jobs. State officials are developing a new curriculum that community organizations or colleges will administer in each of 13 areas designated as hubs — one being Carbondale.
Higgs is confident that clean energy will soon be a viable job option for people from Harrisburg, Carbondale and surrounding communities.
“My story is not too different from the stories of a lot of individuals in rural communities that have been economically dependent on coal,” Higgs said. “If you can just show them that there’s jobs in the [clean energy] sector, they will jump on it. I was in electronics, and then I saw a job in this sector. A lot of folks just want jobs, you’ve just got to show that the jobs are there.”
While Higgs would like to see his former classmates and neighbors working in clean energy, his top priority is making sure the clean energy transition helps address the region’s long-standing racial inequality.
“In Southern Illinois, the Black and Brown community often gets left out of this type of development,” Higgs said. “I see efforts to [change that] happening in the northern part of the state. But, you need to make sure the workforce components are there and successful in places like Cairo. I would just like to see a just transition that is equitable to folks here in Southern Illinois, that is equitable economically, that is equitable racially.”
Causing trouble, coming home
On a spectacularly gorgeous Sunday afternoon — Mother’s Day — Georgia de la Garza sat on the breezy patio of Alto Vineyards, sipping red wine as her 3-year-old granddaughter danced to folk-rock music played by de la Garza’s friends. The tune is upbeat and rollicking, but the words are somber. Singer-songwriter Tim Crosby is describing his great-uncle Herbie’s death in a coal mine — “Number 9” — where Herbie worked underground with Crosby’s own father.
De la Garza has grown up with such stories, and refers to “my miners” when describing her community. The daughter of a well-known sport fisherman and entrepreneur in the small town of Royalton, she always had a wild and independent streak. With her husband Paul de la Garza, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, she lived in Mexico City and traveled the world. But after her husband’s death more than a decade ago, she returned to Southern Illinois with the two children they had adopted in Mexico, and devoted herself to healing her family and her home region.
De la Garza joined forces with local farmers occupying rural roads to try to stop a new Peabody strip mine, risking arrest and injuring her back in the process. She lobbied tirelessly for a coal severance tax — Illinois is one of few coal states that does not levy such fees on coal companies. She became a player in the state’s Democratic politics and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential race.
De la Garza is savvy yet stubbornly uncompromising when it comes to politics, and she is disillusioned with Illinois’ plans for a just transition and clean energy shift. She is furious that many advocates abandoned the push for a coal severance tax in passing CEJA, and she doesn’t feel heavy reliance on solar is the answer to the climate crisis or the state’s energy needs.
De la Garza worries that like coal, solar will become a major industry that profits those with power while sidelining or harming the vulnerable. She worries about the health impacts on factory workers making solar panels in China, the risks of mining minerals needed for solar cells, and the problem of disposing of defunct solar panels.
Standing in a cluster of trees she considers sacred at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers a day earlier, De la Garza echoed Pryor in calling for more divergent and creative thinking about the energy future. She pictures low-impact hydro energy generation installed in the fast-flowing rivers, and emissions-free geothermal systems underlying every farmstead.
She resents that the area has long been treated as a “sacrifice zone,” from the oil refineries and coal plants lining the rivers to sites like Koppers and the Crab Orchard munitions plant, a nearby Superfund site deeply contaminated with discarded weapons and toxins.
“The movement needs to be more realistic about a just transition,” De la Garza said. “It’s totally driven from the north, they’re not understanding what we are dealing with here.”
Unlike Pryor, she thinks the new port might only make things worse, with more trucks, pollution, heavy industry and low-paying work. “The port will mean a lot of jobs for Carbondale and Cairo, but that’s way down the road, and that’s not just transition to me. For real just transition, you don’t just say, ‘We’ve got renewable energy; we’re so great.’ You need real change, you need to get rid of these polluting industries and bring in healthy ones. You need to go back to square one.”
De la Garza hopes people see the potential and beauty all around them — attributes it’s hard to miss when traversing the “Shawnee Wine Trail” — vineyards perched on hillsides over rolling forest and small organic farms. As De la Garza, Pryor and others see it, a just transition means not just replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, but creating “sustainability” based on the area’s natural attributes and the creativity and commitment of people like Higgs and Pryor.
On his jaunt through Southern Illinois, Pryor stops at the family house he built with his father when he was still a kid. He points out the pavement where local children would flock to play basketball, and the grassy lawn where they used to grow all their own vegetables. His father — lean and fit, with a friendly smile and serious tone — discusses a building project they are doing together.
Driving on, Pryor points out ponds where his grandfather bow-fished for grass carp, and overgrown narrow roads he explored on a four-wheeler in his youth.
“It gave me a love and appreciation for the land, my mind running miles a minute with all the possibilities,” he recalls. “People aren’t aware of the potential this area holds.”