A towering billboard in southwestern Indiana greets drivers heading west on Interstate 64: “Governor Holcomb, please—No rotten egg smell! No more super polluters! No coal-to-diesel in Dale!” And adorning lawns across Spencer County are bright-yellow posters that read #NOC2D. The signs began going up last spring, about a month before the town council in the small farming community of Dale set aside more than 500 acres of cornfield for a $2.5 billion refinery that would convert coal to diesel fuel. The message is clear: Local residents don’t want the plant—or the cancer-causing and climate-warming emissions that would come with it.
One thing southwestern Indiana doesn’t need more of is air pollution, says John Blair, an environmental activist who runs the nonprofit Valley Watch. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, Spencer County ranks in the country’s top 1 percent for toxic substances that billow into the air.
Often called a “sacrifice zone” by locals, this corner of the state is already home to four so-called super polluters within a 50-mile radius. (All four are coal-fired power plants.) According to a permit drafted in December by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), the new diesel refinery would add millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. The plant would also release nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter at levels that the EPA considers significant, though IDEM says the facility would not violate air-quality standards. Yet what else the plant might emit is unclear since it would be the first of its kind built in the country.
The proposal, submitted by Delaware-based Riverview Energy, still needs the blessing of the EPA, but if approved, the plant would use coal-hydrogenation technology to produce diesel from coal instead of oil. The process, which won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931, would provide a market for the state’s 17 billion tons of coal reserves. This coal, which is high in sulfur, is generally considered lower quality and especially dirty.
“Riverview Energy thinks that this is going to alter the entire landscape of how we do transportation in the United States,” says Blair, who has worked to stop the development of coal conversion plants for nearly four decades.
Riverview’s proposal, which has been in the works for more than a year, comes at a time when utilities across the country are shuttering coal plants, wind power and solar power are becoming cheaper, and Americans are demanding energy sources that don’t mess with their health and the climate. That goes for Indianans, too. In October, one of the state’s largest utility companies, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, announced that it would eliminate its dependence on coal entirely by 2028. That commitment, says Rachel Fakhry, a policy analyst for NRDC, “is one of the most progressive not only in the Midwest, but also in the country.”
According to the Energy Information Administration, the Midwest’s dependence on energy from coal has decreased significantly over the past decade, from 70 percent in 2010 to less than 50 percent in 2017. The drop is largely due to utilities reviewing their bottom lines and realizing that a switch to cleaner fuels could cut costs and reduce electricity bills for their customers. “The landscape has changed,” says Fakhry.
IDEM, however, appears to be moving forward with the coal-to-diesel proposal anyway. It says it will address a number of issues the EPA had with its air-quality permit, including how it calculated the plant’s emissions, and file the final permit application later this year.
The people of Spencer County aren’t backing down either. In December, concerned citizens packed the Heritage Hills High School auditorium and spilled into the hallway. Forty-five people, including Mary Hess, president of the nonprofit Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, spoke out against the refinery. Just seven spoke in support.
Hess is a former postal worker who began looking more closely at the environmental issues facing her community after she retired in 2013. After founding her organization last March, she set up an online petition opposing the plant. So far, more than 2,100 people have signed.
In addition to speaking with Riverview Energy and having Indiana health officials take a closer look at the community’s air-quality concerns, Hess’s group wants more air monitors installed around Spencer County. Armed with information from those monitors, they hope to show why the plant would be bad for the county, the state, and the region. Ultimately, she says, “our main goal is to stop it.”
Living in a country that already exports more diesel than it uses, Hess also questions the need for such a refinery. Sure, the technology “did win a Nobel Prize,” says Hess, “but so did the lobotomy.”
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