In the summer of 2017, Mary Hess, a retired postal worker, heard rumors about a proposal for a mysterious new coal plant to be built in her town of Dale, Indiana. But for months, they were just rumors, because it was hard to find any details about the project.
“We’d go to town council meetings but they didn’t answer our questions,” she told Earther.
The picture became clearer in January 2018, though. Hess read in the local newspaper that a company called Riverview Energy had applied for a state permit to construct a coal-to-diesel plant. The application indicated that the facility would spew out 2.2 million tons of carbon a year (the equivalent of roughly 500,000 cars’ annual emissions) as well as known carcinogens like benzene and other pollutants that contribute to asthma. Those emissions are expected to produce a smell reminiscent of rotten eggs.
The plant would also require the continued use of not only coal, but also oil and natural gas—all forms of energy the world needs to transition away from as quickly as possible. Despite all this, last year, Indiana approved it. If it’s constructed, it will be the first facility of its kind in the nation. The proposal marks the coal industry’s latest attempt to rebrand itself as a clean industry, but in reality, it’s anything but clean.
“When I learned more about it, I became really scared of what the health effects could be,” said Hess. “I knew we had to fight it.”
By March 2018, Hess and her neighbors banded together to form Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, an environmental group dedicated to fighting the plant’s construction. Last summer, they joined with other local groups and Earthjustice lawyers to legally challenge the plant’s construction. They petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to object to the plant, but last month, the agency declined to do so. Separately, they’re also challenging Indiana’s air quality permit to Riverview Energy Corporation on six counts. In February, they won on one count.
“The judge found that [Indiana’s environmental agency] had violated its own rules on public participation by failing to provide our clients with important information about the air permit,” Charles McPhedran, an attorney with Earthjustice who’s representing the case, told Earther in an email.
This June, a judge will hear the other five counts.
The proposed Dale refinery wouldn’t burn coal for energy like a traditional plant. Instead, it would transform coal into liquid diesel oil by mixing it with oil and hydrogen from natural gas—a process called hydro-cracking, a technology licensed by the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
If the facility is built, its process of making diesel out of coal will emit millions of tons of poisonous contaminants every year, polluting the climate and harming public health. That’s just the process to make the diesel. Burning it will release even more carbon and other pollutants will be released. But Riverview Energy, which was previously called Clean Coal Refining Corporation, touts the facility as an innovative form of sustainable coal technology.
“This process, known as direct-coal hydrogenation, is completely compliant with all state and federal regulations, and is an environmentally friendly process that does not burn or gasify coal,” the company website says. But in their own state permit application, Riverview’s admits that they expect 1.29 people per every 100,000 exposed to the facility’s pollution will develop cancer. That cancer risk is nearly 13 times greater than what the state’s environmental agency considers a safe threshold.
The push to build the coal-to-diesel plant comes amid the decline of the U.S. coal industry. Coal plants, which are more expensive to run and maintain than their natural gas and renewable counterparts, are shutting down all over the country. Coal is even more expensive than oil now, thanks to the oil market’s recent rapid collapse. That’s to say nothing of renewables, which could replace three-quarters of American coal plants and save money right now.
The proposed coal-to-diesel plant is far from the coal industry’s first attempt to clean up its image. Coal companies have used the term “clean coal” in advertisements from as early as 1921, when it was used to refer to coal that was wiped clean of dirt before burning.
More recently, the term was popularized in 2008 by coal industry representatives, who began using it to refer to any technology that reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from coal. In the 2008 election cycle, an industry group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity launched an ad campaign to raise the profile of these technologies, which resulted in their unforgettable TV advertisement that includes cartoon coal lumps singing “Clean Coal Night” to the tune of “Silent Night.”
Now, the coal industry and its allies in government apply the label “clean coal”—or, if you’re Donald Trump, “beautiful clean coal”—to many technologies, from the practice of removing sulfur dioxide from coal-generated gas, to washing coals to remove soil and rock before it’s sent off to factories, to transforming coal into natural gas. The most common technology the coal industry refers to as “clean” is carbon capture and storage, a process that snags carbon pollution produced by power plants before it reaches atmosphere and stored under the Earth. There are 21 carbon capture coal plants around the world, but the technology hasn’t been proven to work at scale.
Even though industry representatives keep trying to convince the public otherwise, none of these schemes are clean. No matter what you do with it afterward, mining for coal has disastrous impacts on public health—especially for nearby communities and workers—and on the climate. Removing sulfur, soil, and rock from coal doesn’t do anything about the change the fact that it’s the most carbon-heavy fossil fuel. Carbon capture and storage is expensive, doesn’t capture 100 percent of the carbon produced by coal plants, and does nothing to capture the other pollutants these plants create.
Coal-to-diesel, the technology Riverview Energy is pushing to use in Dale, Indiana, isn’t a better option, especially for people like Hess who live in close proximity to the site annexed for Riverview Energy.
“It’d be just a mile away or less from my home... and less than a mile from [an] elementary school, and less than a mile from a nursing home, and... near a lot of agriculture,” said Hess. “We’re largely a farming community. To set this plant right in the middle of all that is mind-boggling.”
It’s not surprising that Indiana would allow a plant like this to be constructed, considering the state recently passed legislation that will make it harder to close coal plants.
“It’s just another attempt to hold onto coal. Indiana is one of the few states that continues to hold onto coal,” said Hess. “But we need to change, we need to evolve. Let’s think about the people.”