Jodi Perras has a clear memory of the moment she experienced, viscerally, the depth of her concern about the climate crisis. She was at an environmental workshop participating in a visioning exercise. The facilitator guided attendees, eyes closed, to imagine themselves in a field, 100 years from now, surrounded by their great-great-grandchildren.
Perras recalls that the facilitator said, “Imagine they’re asking you, ‘What did you do? What did you do when (cataclysmic climate change) was happening?’”
She tears up at the memory. Her own son is 21, her stepson 31. The power of that exercise drove home her sense of urgency to do something.
It’s not like she was a stranger to activism and advocacy: In her off hours she worked with the green team at her church, Epworth United Methodist, where a monthly film series spreads the word about environmental issues. In her workaday life she was the director of Improving Kids’ Environment, which strives to protect children from environmental health hazards.
But as it happened, at the time of this epiphany, she was applying for her current position as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Indiana campaign representative. Now she’s a full-time fighter for those future generations, working to move Indiana away from dirty, expensive, dangerous coal and toward the clean energy future she knows is inevitable.
“I’ve always felt like whatever job I had I was trying to make the world a better place, and I could get out of bed in the morning to do that. But I feel like this is the most important thing I could be doing to make the world a better place.”
There’s a coal plant on campus
With the burning of coal responsible for fully a third of U.S. carbon emissions, it’s hard to disagree about the importance of her mission. And that’s even before considering the health impacts, from asthma to neurological problems, engendered by coal.
For her Beyond Coal Indiana cohort, Bloomington native Megan Anderson, it’s the health angle that makes coal a particularly personal hot button. She recalls being fairly disconnected from various environmental actions during her freshman year at IU. Then she learned something that surprised her.
“I was relaxing in Dunn Meadow, and someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I knew there was a coal plant on campus.”
Anderson had just been diagnosed with asthma the year before, and though she’d seen coal trains go through Bloomington, she’d never given it much thought. Thrilled to be at IU, pleased with her hometown’s leading-edge vibe, she felt disillusioned.
“I was pretty shocked—and scared. My little brother and sister were really young at the time. I thought, ‘They’re growing right now and this coal plant could be affecting their development.’” She further learned that alumni who’d been at IU in the 1970s witnessed the paint peeling off their cars from the plant’s fumes. Some mornings, they would wake up with a sulfur taste in their mouth.
She became the president of Coal-Free IU, eventually visiting the epicenter of mountaintop removal coal mining, West Virginia, the origin of the coal burned in Bloomington.
“This is an issue that impacts people in so many ways whether they know it or not. It’s so important that we take the time right now to move forward. People don’t need to be dealing with toxic water from mountaintop removal sites leaking into their homes, or coal pollution in communities like Indy. People don’t need to have asthma.”
In Indianapolis alone, according to the Clean Air Task Force, toxic pollution from the south side’s Harding Street coal plant contributes to 78 asthma emergency room visits and 1,300 asthma attacks each year.
The impacts of coal go beyond just healthcare costs, points out Perras. The educational system also shoulders the burden. For example, children with asthma who live close to coal plant are more likely to have attacks, and asthma is the number one reason children are not in school. Additionally, poor families who rely on fishing Indiana’s waterways for part of their caloric intake are likely eating mercury-tainted fish because of coal emissions. Women of childbearing age and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of this neurotoxin: Mercury is linked to in utero brain damage, as well as ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, and lower IQs—all conditions that set a child up for lifelong difficulties.
Anderson decries the injustice of this trend—effectively holding back generations of kids because of their zip code. “People are inherently disadvantaged because of where they live. And that’s not OK.”
Not only that, but given the obesity epidemic and the rising number of bad air days, children who can’t play outside because of asthma are at further health risk. “These kids are inside half the summer when they should be playing outside.”
People of color are disproportionately affected; one coalition led by the Black Leadership Forum cited U.S. Census data demonstrating that 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. That’s why the NAACP has lent its clout to the movement as well. (About 56 percent of white Americans live within that radius, which represents the distance within which the maximum impact of smokestack plumes are felt.)
Then there are the infamous coal ash ponds, which in the Harding Street plant’s case are located in a flood-prone area right by the White River. “What is that going to look like in 20 years?” Anderson asks. “Those coal ash ponds are not lined. They weren’t built to be there 70 to 80 years.” Continuing to burn coal means putting anyone working or living near those coal ash ponds at risk.
Editors’ note: See a slideshow of the recent Beyond Coal rally at White River State Park.
The time is ripe
What are these energy warriors up against? Namely, Indiana’s continued reliance on coal for 95 percent of the state’s electricity generation, and a right-leaning electorate.
But the time is ripe for a change, and moving beyond coal doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. As Perras explains it, concerns around coal’s health impacts have been dismissed for years because coal was so cheap. However, it just isn’t cheap anymore—even before factoring in the strain on our healthcare and education systems.
That’s partly due to new federal standards governing mercury and air toxics—compliance would involve a major upgrade of the plants.
“Our electricity rates used to be in the bottom five, now we’re around 23rd in country in terms of rates,” Perras says. “Because of the health protections that are coming down from federal government to ensure utilities have to do their share in protecting environment, utilities have to decide: ‘Are we going to keep this coal plant burning for 25 years or are we going to look at something else?’”
Anderson adds, “As consumers we need to understand that these are old coal plants. They’re 50 years old, primed for retirement. They’re not a good investment.”
Between the new federal standards and the age of the plants, the expense of burning coal is becoming more transparent. Indeed, IPL has decided to retire a number of coal plants or transition them to natural gas, deeming them too costly to retrofit for coal under the new standards.
However, they plan to retain the largest five coal plants and cover the cost by increasing customer rates.
It’s a fantastically flawed plan, say Anderson and Perras.
In May, the Sierra Club and Citizens Action Coalition filed a brief exposing the sketchy logic IPL presented to the Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission.
Instead of pushing forward with these aging and expensive coal plants, Beyond Coal wants IPL to seek 30 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020—instead of the miserly three percent currently pledged.
Billions and billions of dollars in subsidies have allowed IPL to get to this point, say Anderson and Perras, and now they want to force ratepayers into investing in a continued poor risk. They’re asking the IURC to raise rates just so they can continue to burn coal—meanwhile selling their electricity on the wholesale market, because they generate more than consumers need.
In short, “We’re paying for them to make money,” says Anderson.
“As customers we have to engage or we’re going to get ripped off. We’re going to get ripped off because of our health, and because of our rates in the future when we will be totally dependent on these coal plants that are falling apart.” This is the case with more than half the coal plants across the country.
Victories piling up nationally
Undaunted by an uphill battle, Perras and Anderson see this time as a prime opportunity to transition Indiana’s energy sector, positioning the Hoosier state as a leader. Their vision goes above and beyond stopping Big Coal, encompassing a healthier, cleaner, more prosperous Indiana. Countless jobs could be brought back home, to keep up with demand for wind and solar installations. (Wind turbines are made up of some 8,000 components—potentially translating into thousands of manufacturing jobs.)
Meanwhile, Hoosiers would have more energy choices and would even be able to generate their own energy, feeding it back into the grid.
Sound farfetched? They point to another stolid Midwestern state, Iowa, for inspiration. Led by primarily Republican lawmakers, Iowa is poised to obtain 30 percent of its energy from wind within the year.
Two of our neighboring states, Ohio and Michigan, are among the top 10 in the nation creating jobs in solar energy.
And nationwide, victories have begun to pile up: Los Angeles decided to move beyond coal. Nevada shut down coalfired plants that were slamming a local Native American community. Chicago’s mayor pledged to shut down coal plants. In North Carolina, a thousand people showed up at a hearing to call for clean energy.
“This is not pie-in-the-sky, future Star Wars stuff,” says Perras. “This is stuff that people are doing right now, and we’re being held back in Indiana.”
In fact, coal represents a key moral issue of our time, she says, with disadvantaged communities saddled with a disproportionate share of the fallout.
And then there is the specter of the planet left those great-great-grandchildren, an earth heated beyond the point of habitability. As Perras puts it, “How livable is (the earth) going to be for the people who are most vulnerable, and the animals and plants and wildlife that are most vulnerable? People like me can probably adapt, but not people who are living on the edge or who are living in an island nation that might be underwater.”
“My concern is for those folks who won’t have the means or ability, and those creatures who won’t be able to adapt.”
Editor’s note: To read more about this story, go to Shawndra Miller’s site.
Status of Key Battles
- Rockport, IN: Leucadia Coal Gasification Plant
Thanks to over 6000 actions taken by concerned Hoosiers all over the state, this spring the Indiana General Assembly voted to protect ratepayers from a proposed “Leucadia tax” which would have made consumers foot the bill and assume the risk for an out-of-state company’s poor investment. The new law allows legal challenges to play out and gives the state another opportunity to review, modify, or reject this expensive and dirty project.
- IPL’s Harding Street and Petersburg Coal-fired Plants
IPL requested a $511 million rate hike to cover the cost of retrofitting the plants. Sierra Club and CAC’s brief filed with IURC calls the utility company’s calculation a “back of the envelope” analysis. “Rather than considering all alternatives to meet EPA requirements and protect ratepayer interests, IPL apparently decided first to keep the units running, and then asked its consultants to produce a cost for doing so.” Ignoring lower-cost and healthier alternatives to coal, the utility company plans to continue selling excess power wholesale, which puts 100 percent of profits in shareholders’ pockets. “Yet IPL’s analysis…made it appear that ratepayers would benefit from sales of excess electricity.” A decision is expected from IURC this summer.