Where the Solution Begins: The We Campaign in Granite City

Jun 25, 2008 by

In Granite City, Illinois, the scents of molten steel and baking coal hang ever-present in the air, and water from the tap has a metallic tang. An industrial town since the 1870s, Granite City once thrived on the sort of manufacturing jobs that these days are becoming increasingly scarce in the American heartland. In a typical scene of small-town decay, many of the old shops downtown are shuttered, historic brick buildings crumbling in neglect.

But the steel mill in Granite still provides good work for some. Over the years, many of the people of Granite City have been willing to ignore the pollutants that spew from the mill in gratitude for the paychecks that also come from it. And the steelworkers of this small town take pride in their work. After all, steel builds buildings, bridges, and cars, boats, trains, trucks— whether most people notice its presence all around them or not, steel provides essential support for our nation’s infrastructure. So, Granite City is not just dependent upon its steel mill. Granite City is proud of its steel mill.

But Granite City is still one of the most polluted towns in the entire St. Louis metropolitan area. In fact, parts of Granite City suffer the worst air quality in the entire state of Illinois. This historic town struggles under the weight of two creeping slow-motion disasters— the steady, steep decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector, and decades of continuous environmental degradation.

But at the “Green Jobs for America —We Can Solve It Town Hall” in Granite City, sponsored by Al Gore’s We Can Solve It campaign, environmentalists from the Illinois Sierra Club and members of the United Steelworkers Union took the stage together to promote a new alliance that could solve both of Granite City’s problems.

I arrived at the We Can Solve It meeting to find a modest audience, far fewer than the city’s Town Hall building could hold. But I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. After all, there’s a pretty big flood going on here in the Mississippi Valley. Granite itself hasn’t been much affected compared to a lot of other local towns, but there’s a general sense of despair in the air in the Midwest right now as we watch the country’s corn crop drown.

Ideally one might imagine the flood would inspire more people to show up to a meeting about climate change. But I suspect folks around here are more concerned right now with fighting this flood than thinking about ways to prevent the next one.

Having decided to come to the meeting on fairly short notice, after receiving an email from the We Can Solve It campaign only a couple of days before the event, I hadn’t had time to do much research and really wasn’t sure what to expect.

An entire Boy Scout troop manned one information table. The Piasa Palisades Chapter of the Illinois Sierra Club had set up right next to the Coalition of Independent Business Owners and the United Congregations of Metro-East. And representatives of the United Steelworkers Union sat behind a huge banner that read “Blue Green Alliance.” As in, blue collar workers aligning with environmentalists. The steel mill workers, embracing the Sierra Club.


Well, a flyer at the Steelworkers Union table spelled it out: Industrial-scale wind turbines— the type used in green-energy-generating wind farms— are made of tons and tons of steel.

Not only are wind turbines made of steel, but they require skillful manufacturing workers to craft and assemble. They require skilled maintenance workers to repair. They require open land to be built upon— land that is most easily acquired by paying rent to farmers, who can continue to grow grain right underneath the turbines’ spinning blades.

In other words, the construction of wind power plants could create thousands of jobs in multiple sectors across the state of Illinois. All while increasing the entire nation’s energy independence, reducing air pollution from electric coal-fired power plants, and helping to slow global warming.

20-year and 30-year veteran steelworkers blinked back tears as they spoke of the pride they would feel turning the skills of their trade to a project that would help save the environment for their children’s future. A Sierra club representative spoke earnestly about the benefit manufacture of turbines could bring to the local economy, and praised a recent deal with United States Steel to tightly control fine particulate emmissions from a new coke-firing plant being built to power the steel mill.

Watching manufacturing workers and environmentalists come together so readily in this little hard luck town gave me real hope that, maybe, we can solve our energy problems in time to make a real impact, not just on global climate change, but on the people worst affected by our struggling economy.

It’s such a small beginning. But as I traveled back to my home state of Missouri over the flooded Mississippi, as a shield against the devastation all around me, I held in my mind the image of Granite City, ten years from now, as a green-power boom town.

Jaelithe also writes at The State of Discontent.


  1. Denial, no longer a river in our country??? Imagine that. Not sure you can hear it from there, but that was me letting out one ENORMOUS sigh of relief.

  2. Obama needs to step away from his entanglements with Ethanol for several reasons: (1) escalating crop prices and the recent flooding in the midwest (which will mean even higher prices to come) means that it'll get ugly if too much corn continues to be set aside for the production of ethanol. (2) Even assuming that ethanol is actually more environmentally friendly than petroleum, which is debatable, corn based ethanol is a huge mistake compared, for example, to sugar cane based ethanol. The energy returns for corn based is only 2:1 for corn vs. a fourfold 8:1 for sugarcane. Our current policy is to have a strict tariff on imported ethanol, specifically sugarcane based ethanol coming out of Brazil, which goes against a policy of maximizing environmental benefits. (3) Our support of corn-based ethanol means that we have car manufacturers and gas retailers already sinking capital into corn based ethanol related infrastructure. It is not certain that these equipment will be able to handle all other forms of ethanol, so if we realize, some point down the road, that we don't in fact want to pursue the corn-based ethanol road, we may have already dug ourselves in too deep. (4) It just looks like he's pandering to his Illinois based farmers. That's unsightly.

    Otherwise, Obama is clearly on the right track to a sound environmental policy, one which is, thankfully, not based on building a dozen nuclear reactors (Oh really, McCain? And where would you propose putting said nuclear reactors?) or off-shore drilling.

  3. what Kady said. go team switchgrass!

    thanks, Sarah, for this excellent piece.

  4. Kady brings the awesome, as usual!

    I'm so glad a president Obama would make a green energy policy his number one priority. We should have done this years ago under the Carter administration. But it's not too late.

  5. Hey! That should be "Kady and Sarah bring the awesome, as usual."

    Duh. Note to self: proofreading, it's your friend.

  6. Jaelithe, outstanding and evocative writing–I have to admit, I got a little weepy-eyed at the thought of a "blue-green alliance."

    On their campaign stops, both Obama and Clinton remarked on the possibility of putting steelworkers back to work making wind turbines for the midwest and the rest of the country.

    We *need* this so bad. As a country, a people, and the particular people of that region.

  7. I'm glad you recognize the drawbacks of ethanol. It's not all it's made out to be. A year like this, with so many corn crops damaged by floods, would become an ethanol shortage crisis of its own.

  8. Blue-Green: Love it!

  9. Blue – Green. The turquoise alliance!