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Revealing the Invisible: Coal’s dark cloud over Indiana

Along the Ohio River valley, coal is an air pollution source that’s raised residential health concerns for decades. In Evansville, Indiana, energy production fuels its economy through coal mining and coal fueled power plants. Coal is a key regional economic driver in southern Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Until recent closures, there was over 15,000 Megawatts of coal electric generation within 60 miles of Evansville.

While more coal power plants are scheduled to shut down, continuing operations and a proposed coal-to-diesel venture keep local air quality health activists worried. Concerned citizens are turning to air quality monitoring as part of the solution.

Rockport Power plant on a clear da

The 2,600-megawatt Rockport Power plant on a clear day. Source: BlairPhotoEVV

Tracking Evansville air quality

Ohio Valley Safe Air (OVSA) is a partnership between Valley Watch and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life (SWICQL) to monitor regional air quality.

Valley Watch, based in Evansville, was founded in 1981 to help protect and inform the lower Ohio Valley about regional pollution (1). Founder and President John Blair noted that the group “has had to be the main and often only obstacle that polluters have to face in this region over the last five decades.”

SWICQL, made up of citizens living in and around the small town of Dale, grew out of opposition to a planned coal-to-diesel plant to be built one mile from downtown (2).

The OVSA operates 19 IQAir AirVisual air quality monitoring stations across southern Indiana. Monitors were placed in communities either with coal burning power plants such as Grandview, Newburgh, Mount Vernon, Rockport or in communities downwind from pollutants, like Evansville and Jasper. Through air quality monitoring, activists keep a close eye on fine particle pollution, or PM2.5 (particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less).

In Southern Indiana, annual average PM2.5 concentrations exceeded the World Health Organization’s guideline by 2 to 3 times during 2021.

Rockport Power plant on a polluted day

The Rockport Power plant on a polluted day. Source: BlairPhotoEVV

In nine of the fourteen cities where OVSA operated air quality monitoring stations during 2021, annual average PM2.5 concentrations exceeded the World Health Organization’s guideline by 2 to 3 times. The average annual PM2.5 concentration in Evansville was 12 microns per cubic meter (µg/m3), while the average concentration in Dale was 11 µg/m3.

Daily average PM2.5 concentrations

Daily average PM2.5 concentrations at an air quality monitoring station run by OVSA in Evansville between July 4 and August 3, 2022. Source: IQAir.

PM2.5, closely linked to burning coal, has been directly linked to coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma, and heart and lung disease.

Abbie Brockman, an educator and Valley Watch board member, has assumed much of the responsibility for the group’s air quality monitoring program. Like most members, she has concerns about how PM2.5 exposure may be impacting children’s physical health and childhood neurodevelopment. Pollution has been linked to childhood neurodevelopment (3).

“There's a lot of kids that have asthma.”

The Ohio Valley was identified as one of the United States’ two “asthma belts.”

Those concerns are justified. The Ohio Valley was identified as one of the United States’ two “asthma belts” by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in 2021 (4). The organization cited air pollution as one of several key risk factors.

While the OVSA stated that coal power plant pollution is the most significant source of local air pollution, Blair and Brockman noted several additional sources of regional air pollution. These can include pollutants from mines, VOC off-gassing from furniture production, metal smelters, raw plastics manufacturing and extrusion, turkey farm manure, and controlled burns and wildfire smoke from as far away as the West Coast.

The Ohio Valley is prone to multiple temperature inversions, when air becomes static, and a buildup of air pollution is less likely to disperse.

Building partnerships for air quality awareness

The group has more monitors to place and is working to overcome several installation hurdles. These include access to electricity and Wi-Fi, in addition to assuaging misgivings by property owners.

To overcome some of those challenges, the Ohio Valley Safe Air network hopes to partner with the University of Evansville’s Center for Innovation & Change to work out placement for the remaining monitors. The group wants to create an area public alert system with the university to notify more people when air quality is poor.

OVSA also has ambitious plans for sharing their air quality data partnership with the university to better understand area pollution patterns and trends. They plan to provide data access to university staff and students publishing in professional journals and to further study the relationship between local pollution sources and public health outcomes.

There are state government air quality monitors in Indiana run by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), including a monitor in Evansville. However, Blair expressed distrust in the state government’s commitment to environmental pollution.

“IDEM has a bad culture of thinking of itself as an economic development agency instead of environmental protection.” Blair asserted. “They don’t want to accept the data from the monitors.”

Valley Watch has observed that government air quality monitors seem to “fail” on poor air quality days – exactly when access to air quality data can help inform the public. By contrast, low-cost air quality monitoring stations owned by individuals and activists maintain access throughout the year and provide more complete, validated data accessible by anyone via an app.

Coal-to-liquid (CTL) controversy

Beyond existing pollution sources, there are concerns about a proposed coal-to-diesel plant in Dale.

Coal liquification is marketed as “clean coal” or “clean diesel” when liquification creates diesel. But the process isn’t as clean as advertised.

There have been at least ten proposed projects to build a coal-to-liquid (CTL) plant in the area. Coal liquification, the process of converting coal into a liquid hydrocarbon as use for fuel, is marketed as “clean coal” or “clean diesel” when liquification creates diesel. But the process isn’t as clean as advertised.

The coal-to-diesel conversion process releases carbon into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas. The liquification process is energy intensive and furthers dependency on coal mining (5,6).

There are currently no coal-to-diesel plants in the United States. Despite the fact no such project has gone ahead elsewhere, the community is conflicted over the project.

A region divided

Valley Watch has succeeded in opposing nearly all previously proposed area “synfuel” facilities which would convert coal to liquids, gases, and other burnable solids. The remaining proposal, a coal-to-diesel plant in Dale, is still scheduled to be built.

A billboard opposing a proposed coal to diesel refinery in Dale, Indiana

A billboard opposing a proposed coal to diesel refinery in Dale, Indiana. Source: BlairPhotoEVV. Billboard designed by Matt Brockman.

The region is divided on the future role of coal. Signs both for and against the proposed facility can be found in yards in Dale. “There are a lot of folks here who work for the coal mines,” said Abbie Brockman. “We do have a lot of people on our side, but then there are people who are adamantly opposed.”

Valley Watch believes that providing validated, calibrated air quality data to the Ohio Valley will help better inform views and combat air pollution.

While Dale and the greater community may be divided on the issue, Valley Watch believes that providing validated, calibrated air quality data to the community will help better inform views and combat air pollution.

The takeaway

Southern Indiana has an air quality problem. But at least light has been shed on the problem thanks to the dedicated efforts of activist groups like Valley Watch and SWICQL.

Air quality monitoring creates data that can inform decision-makers and change lives. When people are empowered through data-driven information, this is how communities can take back their health and tackle air pollution at its source.

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