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Students Want Washington University To Cut Peabody Ties

Students protest environmental issues at Washington University's Brookings Arch in 2014.
Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Protestors converge on the steps of Brookings Hall to protest Washington University's ties with Peabody.

Nicholas Curry's sleeping arrangement has changed a bit over the last couple of days.

Curry, a junior at Washington University, has been camping out in a tent near Brookings Hall. It's part of a "sit-in" to get Washington University to cut ties with Peabody Energy, a large coal company that's headquartered in St. Louis. 

"I slept out here with my dog Max," Curry said. "So, we spent the night here last night, and we'll be here tonight."

Curry was one of numerous speakers who spoke out on Wednesday against Peabody. The protestors include Washington University students and officials from Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE). They want Washington University to remove Peabody CEO Greg Boyce from the university's Board of Trustees.

They also want the university to stop accepting funding from Peabody to conduct research. Peabody is one of several companies that helps pay for Washington University's Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization.

Madeleine Balchan, a Washington University student and one of many students sitting in, said the university's ongoing research on renewable energy will guide environmental policy, but its relationship with Peabody blocks progress. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Nicholas Curry speaks Wednesday at a rally against Peabody Energy.

"The actions of Peabody energy do not support the mission of Washington University," Balchan said. 

Much of the criticism surrounding Peabody involves two cases in which minority communities were relocated for coal mining. The indigenous and rural people in Black Mesa, Ariz., and Rocky Branch, Ill., ended up suffering negative health effects, said Washington University student Nancy Yang.

“It’s disappointing to see that the university works with a company that actively promotes and creates health disparities in communities that are marginalized," said the third-year student.

Peabody sent St. Louis Public Radio a statement saying that the company "is proud to support Washington University in St. Louis and its leadership in education as well as in clean coal research."  

In a written statement, Washington University said it supports "our students’ right and ability to express their opinions on the issue of coal or any other issue." 

“Washington University — in partnership with many organizations including other leading research institutions around the world — is a significant contributor to finding solutions to the world’s energy challenges,” the statement says. “Our researchers are focused on making alternative energy sources more viable. For example, our researchers are making real progress toward capturing the renewable energy generated through photosynthesis — a concept that was considered unattainable until efforts like this moved forward.”

The statement went onto say that the research “is made possible through a combination of government funding and the support of private sector partners.” And that the “support” allows faculty and staff “to make a meaningful difference through their research.”

“Coal is, and will continue to be, an important source of energy for the United States and the world,” the statement says. “An aim is to develop approaches for use of coal to minimize adverse effects on the environment. “

Protestors hope the sit-in will prompt administrators to distance themselves from Peabody. 

"Washington University and Peabody are both major players in St. Louis," said Curry, the student who is camping out in front of Brookings Hall. "They do a lot for the community, but they also have a responsibility to be stewards  for the community. So, Washington University leading that push would really mean a lot for St. Louis."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.