Coal should stay in ground where it can’t do harm

This guest column David Haberman, professor of religious studies, at Indiana University, and posted in the Herald Times.

On Monday, April 2, a group of students representing Coal Free IU delivered a study of the coal-fired power plant titled “IU Central Heating Plant: The True Cost of Coal” to IU President Michael McRobbie that highlighted the dangers of burning coal on campus and called for an end to this mode of energy production.


They also presented McRobbie with a bill for the unaccounted costs to human health and the environment to the tune of $4,350,781.83. This presentation was timely, as the IU Board of Trustees met Thursday and today and may give thought to an integrated energy plan for the campus.

Any consideration of an issue as huge as the mining and burning of coal should first be framed within an open-eyed recognition of mass extinction. In 1998, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City conducted a survey of hundreds of biologists working in a variety of fields. The great majority of them were convinced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction that is most likely the fastest in Earth’s long history, and that it is not the result of natural phenomena, but rather, caused by human behavior.

Since then hundreds of studies and reports have confirmed this, with even more dire warnings. Biologists at the University of California-Santa Barbara recently conducted a study that showed that Earth might lose half of its species during the lifetime of the current generation. Burning coal is not the only factor contributing to this enormously grave situation, but it is a major one.

Burning coal is extremely dangerous to human health. According to a 2011 report by the American Lung Association, coal-fired power plants produce more hazardous air emissions than any other industrial pollution sources and are a leading contributor to asthma and respiratory stress, especially for those living near a power plant.

Records show that in 2005, the Indiana University Central Heating Plant produced 55.85 percent of Monroe County’s total sulfur dioxide emissions. The on-campus coal plant is one of the largest point source emitters of mercury, heavy metal and carbon dioxide emissions in Monroe County.

Indiana now routinely issues a warning to limit the consumption of fish in our local lakes and streams because of their high mercury content. In addition, coal pollution is the leading cause of smog, acid rain, air toxics, water pollution and the leading industrial waste stream.

Coal burned in Bloomington is trucked to the IU campus from Peabody’s Bear Run Mine in Sullivan County. Bear Run is the largest surface mine in the eastern United States, with an eight million ton annual production capacity.

Huge tracts of forest and farmland are destroyed while removing the coal, and runoff from this mine contaminates ground and surface water, including important waterways such as the Wabash River. Transporting the coal through Bloomington’s narrow streets on large trucks to the Fee Lane power plant poses a serious threat to our community.

As the board of trustees meets this week, it is my hope that they will give serious consideration to creating a plan to move IU beyond a dependency on coal. As the flagship campus of Indiana University, IU-Bloomington must be committed to the well-being of current and future students, as well as all residents in the state and larger region.

It is time to invest some research dollars in developing the technology to harness truly sustainable energy sources such as sun, wind and geothermal so that we can leave the coal in the ground where it belongs.

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