Professor of Economics
At Knox Since: 1981
Richard Stout remembers his first glimpse of coal mining in Knox County.
Driving to Green Oaks in the early 1980s, Stout, a professor of economics
who came to Knox in 1981, saw a huge dragline, an excavating crane used
in surface mining, parked by the side of the road. At the time, Stout recalls, he didn't give it a second thought. But some 10 years later, he got the opportunity to not only think twice about coal mining but to advocate against its effects on local farmland as well.
In 1994, Stout was contacted by Janis King, Anna Sophia Johnson '49 and Jane Johnson. They represented the Citizens Organizing Project (COP) -- a group created by local farmers to strengthen laws on coal mining and mine reclamation.
A coal company had applied for a state permit to strip mine prime farmland in Knox County. COP doubted, but could not prove, that the company would be able to restore the lands agricultural productivity. The group had approached other academics to help them analyze data and make a case to save the farmland; Stout was the only one who agreed to help.
COP asked Stout to study the crop yield data from a restored mine. "If I could show that the yields on the reclaimed land were lower than before mining, COP could argue that the permit should be rejected," Stout says.
Stout was originally introduced to coal mining during college."In the summer of 1967, I did an internship with Pierre F. Goodrich. He was a lawyer in Indianapolis who also owned several businesses, including a coal mining company," he says. "Mr. Goodrich believed that reclamation could be done profitably, and he developed his own methods to prove it."
Prior to modern regulations, strip miners removed topsoil, clay and rock and dumped them together, creating an upside-down landscape known as mine spoils. Knox County has about 20,000 acres of spoils -- land now worthless for farming. Current regulations require restoration of the original farmland topography. The techniques, coincidentally, include those pioneered by Pierre Goodrich.
In 1995, after analyzing the yield data on the farmland COP hoped to save, Stout testified in court on behalf of COP that approximately 70 percent of the fields failed to meet requirements.
Notwithstanding his research, "the permit for the new mine was issued, which made us mad," Stout said, "and the mining company was ordered to pay our legal fees, which made the company mad."
COP lost its fight to save farmland in 1995, but Jane Johnson -- who, along with Anna Sophia Johnson, received an honorary degree from Knox for her work to preserve prime farmland -- credits Stout with revolutionizing the area's reclamation debate.
"Through his efforts, there's hardly any strip mining on prime farmland in Illinois," she says. She and other COP members also recruited Stout to join a national group, the Citizens Coal Council.
"When I look at coal mining, I see serious external costs imposed upon society," says Stout, who is glad his research has resulted in better regulation of mining and better reclamation of mined land, both locally and nationally. "As I've grown more confident in my research, I've become a citizen-advocate, not just a spectator."
Despite his work with COP and the Citizens Coal Council, Stout refuses to demonize the opposition.
"Coal is an important energy source for the foreseeable future," he says. "People in the coal industry have jobs to do, and spouses and children, and dogs and cats at home. They also provide my data, and I wouldn't be able to do my research if I didn't have their trust."