How coal-fired power plants poison Indiana’s air, soil and water

Gabriel Filippelli is a professor of Earth Sciences at IUPUI and director of the Center for Urban Health. Photo by Mark Lee.

Air, water, earth, fire: For nearly 40,000 years, civilizations have linked these four elements to everything from health treatments and home decor to horoscopes and human compatibility. All aspects of existence, it was believed, were imbued with the distinct characteristics of each element in varying proportions. All four interacted together. They needed each other.

Greek philosophy and feng shui aside, it’s hard to argue the interconnectedness of air, water, earth and fire. The four can no more be separated than a cake can be unbaked. Under the incubator of the sun (fire), the atmosphere (air) is made inhabitable, which allows water and soil to nurture life. Take away one element and the whole system falls flatter than a ruined birthday cake.

Gabriel Filippelli can attest to this. For more than 20 years the professor of Earth Sciences at IUPUI and director of the Center for Urban Health has been parleying research grants into studies that have examined evidence of climate change, identified impacts on the earth, water, and air, and explored weighty topics as only a biogeochemist, paleoceanographer and paleoclimatologist can.

So, when Filippelli tells you what happens in the air doesn’t stay in the air, you can be assured that there’s science to back him up.

Indiana’s King Coal

Take mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, for example.

The mercury comes out into the air, and is deposited right on the landscape,” Filippelli says, “where it eventually flows into the waterways, and makes fish inedible, especially for pregnant women or children, because it’s such a powerful toxin.”

Filippelli’s recent research illustrates that example. He and a team of students have been measuring concentrations and following the migration of mercury emissions from the Harding Street Power Plant on the southwest side of Indianapolis.

There’s a clearly defined plume of very high mercury values throughout soils in the city,” he notes. “It’s deposited on soil and then makes its way into the White River. You can still see a memory of high mercury levels in these waters at least 20 to 30 miles south of Indianapolis. So we can backtrack the very poor water quality in Indiana to the source.”

The coal-fired power station owned and operated by AES (parent company of Indianapolis Power & Light) emits a couple hundred lbs of mercury per year, Filippelli estimates, which blows upwind and dusts the city. As the contaminants drift north and settle into the White River upstream, the south-flowing waterway carries the mercury back through the city.

Indiana has more than its fair share of coal-fired power plants, one of the most notorious sources of mercury emissions, carbon dioxide, and other toxic contaminants. A 2010 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that Indiana was the country’s ninth most coal-dependent state. It ranks fifth-highest in mercury levels, emitting 3,175 lbs a year. With 95 percent of its electrical power generated by coal, the state suffers from not just energy and economic dependence on coal, but devastating health impacts, as well. Nationally, Indiana is one of the worst states for air quality, toxic emissions, and environmental health, largely due to the coal-burning power plants.

The stuff that comes out of a power plant causes a pretty heavy health burden,” Filippelli says. Mercury, a neurotoxin, is proven to cause neural damage, especially in unborn children, causing decreased motor skills and lower intelligence. Other particulates and chemicals released cause pulmonary illnesses, asthma, cardiovascular disease and more.

Filippelli is equally hopeful and skeptical about a current regulatory development at the federal level. After decades of debate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, establishing national limits on mercury and other toxic emissions including arsenic and heavy metals emitted from power plants, and requiring coal plant investments in mercury-control technologies.

For Indiana alone, calculations estimate that in 2016, the rule could prevent 290 premature deaths and avoid as much as $2.4 billion in health benefits. Filippelli isn’t looking for any immediate changes, however, because the regulation is getting a lot of pushback from supporters of the fossil-fuel industry.

It is likely to be litigated against and stalled for quite a while,” he says

Ditto for the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants under the Clean Air Act. The rule defines carbon dioxide as a polluting gas that must be measured and controlled, and sets national limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. “That one is likely nowhere near being adopted as national policy because it has been stalled by litigation.”

Lead threats in the wind

Coal-fired power plants aren’t the only source of air contamination in Indiana, however. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), smelting plants, incinerators and small manufacturing all contribute to poor air quality in Indiana. Even abandoned or poorly maintained properties are a threat. “They’re heavily loaded with chemical components, lead being one of them,” Filippelli says.

Another of his projects measures lead dust in the city. “One of the biggest sources of lead that affects children in Indianapolis is the dust in the air,” he says. “It probably came from lead paint that has degraded and converted to soil dust, which settles into the water and the soil. So the new threat to children’s health is no longer peeling paint, but urban dirt that is periodically resuspended by wind.”

Filippelli’s research involves monitoring for lead and other fine particulates in Indianapolis. “Unfortunately, there are few air monitoring stations for particulates. They have them for ozone, but only a few for particulates.”

Filippelli’s measurements are sure to enhance air quality information for Indianapolis. He recently released a study on lead particulates and their effect on children in urban settings, and plans to publish further research on the topic this summer.

Climate changein the air

From a climate change perspective, Indiana’s poor air quality is only part of the problem with coal-fired power plants. The state ranks sixth in the nation for CO2 output, with a per-capita annual carbon consumption rate of 39 tons, largely due to coal-powered energy. Evidence suggests that the Indiana carbon footprint may be increasing.

As a specialist in climate change science, Filippelli has a grim outlook. “As a physics experiment, I can prove [climate change] in my lab. I’ve studied past climate change. We know it has occurred, and when it happens, it changes the landscape quite a bit, but the things that drove those changes in the past were slow, so that life was able to adapt. Now it’s happening at such a rapid rate, the Earth’s natural ability to adapt is being reduced quite a bit.”

Some things are happening, many are not,” he says. “What has to happen is that we either reduce the number of coal-fired power plants or we have stricter emission standards.”

Tackling big-coal and the slow-moving wheels of change in air quality legislation may seem like a futile fight for individuals, but Filippelli has some suggestions: “Reduce demand for coal-burning power plants by reducing our electricity use,” and “Choose the Green Power option.” People within reach of IPL can choose to buy electricity from renewable resources. In Indiana, that’s wind.

What that does is, in and of itself, converts the electrical production landscape in Indiana. They can still produce energy and sell it to other sources, which they do, but with more people and businesses changing over, IPL has to buy more and more renewables, and it spurs research and development into those renewables.”

Filippelli is encouraged by local reaction regarding state response to the carbon pollution standard proposal. “The public concern for the environment and advocacy for cleaning up emissions was a very positive surprise to me. An excellent column in the Indianapolis Star outlined these potential changes and the community desire to clean up the air and water. I read the comments. They were overwhelmingly in support of making air and water clean enough to breathe safely and swim and fish in.”

That’s all anybody can ask for—an environment in which our four elements can exist in harmony rather than wreak havoc upon each other.

Regulation Changes:

The EPA imposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants this year but came up short on the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants.

Recent active regulations require new power plants to emit no more than 1,000 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The standard U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt, meets that standard, but coal plants emit an average of 1,768 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

The Energy Information Administration estimates only one 900-megawatt coal-fired power plant will be permitted and constructed before 2030.

Indianapolis Power & Light warned that it might need to transfer costs to customers for up to $900 million to upgrade its coal-fired plants in order to follow federal rules on mercury and other emissions. IPL might also retire some older units or convert others to natural gas.

It is estimated that proposed federal EPA regulations will avoid between 6,800 and 17,000 premature deaths from power plant emissions each year, and yield an annual savings of $48 billion to $140 billion. Indiana calculations estimate that in 2016 the proposed changes will prevent 290 premature deaths and avoid almost $2.4 billion in health benefits.

While coal still provides about a third of the nation’s power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half.

Take Action

The Sierra Club, whose Indiana chapter positively impacts our communities daily, launched a campaign called Beyond Coal in 2002 to address the health, environmental, economical and efficiency issues with coal-fired power plants. To date, they’ve stopped over 150 proposed coal plants and evolved from a grassroots community into a powerful voice in environmentalism. The organization now works to phase out the existing coal-fired plants and support clean alternative fuels for the future.

For more information and opportunities to participate click here.

Knozone Action Day

Harmful formation of ground-level ozone affects the health of every individual. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk — as well as those with heart and lung disease.

According to Indianapolis’ Office of Sustainability, “Emissions such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from sources such as vehicles and industry react in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone.”

There are a numerous, common sense ways to reduce these emissions, such as:

- Carpool, bike or take public transportation to work or school.

- If you do drive, don’t let your car idle.

- Don’t fuel your car or cut your grass in the heat of the day.

Also, have your car serviced on a regular basis. According to the Office of Sustainability, “one poorly performing car can equal emissions from 10-25 properly running vehicles.”

Here are more tips, and a sign up for Knozone Action Day email alerts.

All five pieces of the Squandered Indiana series can be found here.

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  • Intothewild Ab

    great article. thank you for reporting on this!

  • Megan Anderson

    If  you’d like to get in contact with Beyond Coal in Indiana please send an email to and add our facebook page Indiana Beyond Coal

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