Blair: Economics belie coal-to-diesel benefit



JASPER — It just doesn’t make sense to John Blair.

Standing behind a lectern at the Astra Theatre in Jasper on Thursday night, he listed all the reasons why he believes the proposed $2.5 billion direct coal hydrogenation plant in the nearby town of Dale can’t — and won’t — work.

He said the private capital market will not support new coal. He said construction of the facility would require significant government support. And he said that even with massive government support, the only previous synthetic fuel plant he has dealt with that actually got off the ground struggled to turn a profit.

The building and operation of the discussed Riverview Energy plant in Dale is a polarizing issue that has divided area residents in recent months. Project supporters say it would boost the local economy and bring needed jobs to the area. Opponents caution it would create environmental, health and quality of life concerns, and they also argue that coal is a dying industry.

“But I’ve got good news for you,” Blair, who is the president of Valley Watch Inc., told the crowd of about 100 people on Thursday. “It’s not going to be completed because the capital market will not support any new coal. It will not support it. Coal plants are shutting down all over the world and the United States.”

His presentation was part of a roughly two-hour event organized by the Dubois County Democrats that marked the first in a series of upcoming speaker events aimed at addressing various issues.

Blair is the president of Valley Watch, an organization founded in 1981 whose mission is to “protect the public health and environment of the lower Ohio Valley.” He is also a former president of the Hoosier Environmental Council and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for capturing a photograph of an Indianapolis broker being held hostage at gunpoint.

“My biggest fear for what is happening in Dale right now is that they’ll get all the land cleared and destroy everything around it, and then walk away,” Blair said Thursday. “Because they’ll run out of money. That’s my biggest fear.”

He went on to say that the plant will never operate because citizen opposition in Dale — which has a population of about 1,500 — is strong and determined. Some attendees sported yellow “No C2D” (coal-to-diesel) shirts while they listened to his speech.

“We are not going to allow this to happen,” he said, later adding that, “I’ve been doing environmental organizing and things for 40-some years, and this is the best group of people I’ve ever worked with.”

According to Herald archives, Riverview Energy has proposed the plant be located on more than 500 acres of land on the north side of Dale. It is expected to use 1.6 million tons of coal and produce 4.8 million barrels of clean diesel and 2.5 million barrels of Naphtha annually.

In January, Riverview Energy President Gregory Merle said the company selected Dale as the potential site of the proposed direct coal hydrogenation plant because of its location. Merle explained at the Lincolnland Economic Development Corporation’s yearly luncheon that the area is “strategically placed for manufacturing,” and products — such as those Riverview Energy’s plant would produce — can be shipped “to anywhere in the U.S. in record time.”

Riverview Energy has said the plant would bring the area 225 “high-skilled, good-paying jobs” and more than 2,000 construction jobs.

But the environmental effects of the plant would reach miles outside of Dale, Dubois County Democrats Issue Director Matt Brosmer said in a press release prior to Thursday’s event.

“The drinking water of Huntingburg and other water supplies in Dubois County, and the air my parents and my generation breathe, are at stake because the proposed plant will make its pollution here and sell its product abroad,” Brosmer said.

When asked after his presentation for a message to proponents of the plant, Blair asked them to think of their families.

“I just hope their children don’t get cancer,” he said. “And if any of their children have gotten cancer, they ought to reassess their lives and the things they’re supporting. Because there’s a lot more to life than money.”

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is expected to make an air permitting decision on the plant sometime this year.

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