Wendy Bredhold walked up to the microphone in the auditorium at Ivy Tech Community College in Evansville, Indiana. At the town hall meeting on that mid-November evening were roughly 100 people who came to hear her—and a number of other presenters—discuss the perils of coal pollution in her hometown. The front row, however, was noticeably empty. Those seats held only sheets of paper that bore the names of the elected officials the organizers had invited.
Evansville, a city of 120,000, sits within 30 miles of seven coal-fired power plants, four of which generate inordinate amounts of toxic emissions and greenhouse gasses—so-called super polluters. Bredhold, a Beyond Coal campaigner for the Sierra Club, worked with others, including the NAACP Evansville branch, to set up the town hall gathering. But attendees didn’t get a chance to speak to the city’s leaders. “Not a single one of them showed up,” says Bredhold.
This was despite the fact that the town’s proximity to polluters had recently gained national attention. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), an investigative journalism nonprofit, published a report and accompanying documentary in 2016 showing the top polluters in the country—and called out Evansville for its location amid of some of the worst. Still, Bredhold says, “In the year since, there have been no champions among our public officials to emerge,” despite invitations to speak and answer citizens’ questions at city council meetings.
The CPI report merged data from two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs. One, the Toxics Release Inventory Program, identified 100 power plants, factories, and industrial sites that together are responsible for one-third of the nation’s toxic air pollution, or chemicals released into the atmosphere that may pose a threat to human health and the environment. The other, the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, called out the country’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. Twenty-two super polluters appeared on both lists, and of those, four are in southwest Indiana’s Ohio River Valley region, along the southern border of the state.
So far, Bredhold’s coalition has focused on pushing Vectren, a local utility with two small coal-burning plants, to shut down its coal-burning units by 2024. That campaign was a success—the company has decided to close all but one unit at those plants—but Vectren still owns part of the super-polluting Warrick Power Plant, located just down the Ohio River. If and when Bredhold’s group turns toward the bigger offenders, it won’t have far to travel.
Officials from all the energy companies in the area say the plants are in compliance with state and federal laws and that emissions have decreased over the years, though some of the plants have had their problems, like EPA air quality violations.
Still, research shows that the kind of air pollution found in the area, what locals call “the Evansville crud,” can make it hard to breathe and cause cardiovascular problems. Research also shows that air pollution can have an effect on maternal and fetal health. But the state doesn’t seem to collect data on the connection between the local outdoor air quality and related health impacts. As the CPI story pointed out, and we confirmed, the Indiana State Department of Health has jurisdiction only over indoor quality. Outdoor air is the state Department of Environmental Management’s responsibility. But that agency referred us back to the Department of Health for more information about its association with health effects.
Air quality is better than it was decades ago due to state and federal regulations, says John Blair, an environmental advocate in southwest Indiana who has run Valley Watch, a nonprofit focused on protecting the health and environment of the Ohio River Valley, for the past 37 years. But super polluters shouldn’t get credit for lowering their emissions because they don’t generate as much electricity as they used to, he says. For the first time in their 25-year life span, American Electric Power’s two 1,300-megawatt units at Rockport both went offline last year, for example, but not to reduce toxic pollution or greenhouse gases. “They couldn’t sell electricity on the grid for more than it cost to produce it,” Blair asserts.
Blair is not particularly optimistic about what the Trump administration will do to alleviate the situation, especially considering the inaction of former Indiana governor Mike Pence. Indiana’s new governor, Eric Holcomb, hasn’t done anything either. And Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke has never made a statement about the pollution problem in his backyard (he also declined to comment for this piece). Even so, Blair, Bredhold, and other concerned activists press on.
Although city officials didn’t come to Bredhold’s meeting, she’s still hoping that they’ll eventually respond to her requests. And after they do, she and her colleagues can win the attention of the bigger polluters. “Because you know what we do? We win,” she says.
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