Group takes ‘first step’ in moving appeal forward


DALE — The most important step Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life took in 2019, according to the advocacy group’s leader, Mary Hess, was to challenge Riverview Energy and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management by appealing Riverview’s air quality permit.

Hess told attendees at a forum Tuesday night in the Micah Center at the Dale Presbyterian Church that as part of the appeal, eight local citizens submitted affidavits on how they believed Riverview’s proposed refinery would affect their quality of life, their health and tourism. Those citizens defended their affidavits in sworn depositions.

Since, the judge has granted Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life and Valley Watch “standing” in the case.

“This means that [the judge] feels we have proof that we will be aggrieved or personally affected by the refinery,” Hess said. “And it’s the first step in moving this case forward.”

Riverview Energy announced in early 2018 plans to build a $2.5 billion coal-to-diesel plant in Dale that would be the first direct coal-hydrogenation project in the U.S. The process, Riverview has said, would make ultra-low diesel fuel, but would not burn or gasify coal. The plant would use 1.6 million tons of coal to produce 4.8 million barrels of clean diesel and 2.5 million barrels of Naphtha each year.

Dale annexed more than 500 acres into the north side of town, and approved industrial zoning for the project.

Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality quickly formed opposing the project, concerned about potentially “dangerous air pollution,” among other things. Valley Watch, an organization created to “protect the public health and environment of the lower Ohio Valley,” also joined the charge.

IDEM, the agency tasked with deciding whether to issue Riverview Energy an air permit for the proposed project, approved a 1,200-page draft air permit for the project in October 2018. The agency’s analysis concluded that “no significant impacts are expected from the proposed facility.”

IDEM then held a public hearing on the draft permit that December, where more than 400 people gathered to hear attendees voice their comments verbally and on the record to IDEM. The agency also gathered written comments on the air permit.

According to Hess, 237 people commented — verbally and in writing — against the plant, and 10 people commented in favor of it before IDEM eventually issued the air permit in June 2019.

Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life and Valley Watch appealed the permit the next month.

In a press release announcing the appeal, Earthjustice attorney Lauren Piette, representing the two groups, said the permit is “deeply flawed.”

“Riverview Energy must not be allowed to site this dangerous project near vulnerable communities, including an elementary school and nursing home,” she said.

Since the appeal, parties on both sides have given sworn depositions on the case, which will go to trial on June 29 in Indianapolis.

The sworn depositions included the eight local citizens mentioned earlier in this story, as well as project officials, such as Riverview Energy President Gregory Merle and Cody Jones, an IDEM permit modeler.

Hess told attendees at Tuesday’s forum about some of Jones’ deposition.

She said Riverview’s air permit allows for 750 tons of toxic hazardous air pollutants, known as HAPs, to be released each year. When reviewing air permit applications, she said IDEM is tasked with determining whether the HAPs emissions exceed certain limits that IDEM considers cancer-causing.

“Mr. Jones admits that IDEM determined that the hazardous air pollutants had exceeded IDEM’s own cancer risk threshold,” Hess said.

She said that in his deposition, Jones stated he expressed his concern about the health hazard, but was overruled internally by someone above him. He was told, Hess said, that the permit would not be denied as a result of the HAPs analysis.

“When asked by our attorney, ‘Do you know of any other air quality permits issued by IDEM with a risk that exceeds the one-in-a-million threshold?’ [Jones’] response was, ‘No,’” Hess said.

“Think about this,” she added. “To his knowledge, IDEM has never issued a permit exceeding their own cancer risk threshold. This statement alone negates the statement from IDEM in October 2018 concerning health impacts stating ‘no significant impacts are expected from the proposed facility.’

“This really angers me.”

Valley Watch President John Blair also addressed the crowd at Tuesday’s forum, sharing Riverview’s company history and the timeline of the proposed Dale project.

He also cited direct quotes from Merle’s 89-page deposition in the appeal.

In his deposition, according to Blair, Merle was asked questions like: Have you worked as an engineer? Do you have any engineering professional licenses or certifications? Other than Riverview, have you worked in the energy industry? Have you every worked in the coal industry specifically?

Merle, who has a bachelor’s degree in material science and engineering from Columbia University, replied, ‘No,’ to all, Blair said.

Blair alleges that Merle also couldn’t recall when Riverview was founded, he couldn’t identify the company’s officers, he admitted that he has never seen a coal-to-diesel refinery in operation, he doesn’t know what permits or authorizations the Riverview project still needs, and he hasn’t gathered any information about the environmental health consequences of the refinery.

“We were interested in determining the qualifications of Riverview’s principals to finance, build and operate not only this plant, but also all the additional plants they claim they are planning to build,” Blair said. “What we heard from them under oath did not give us confidence they would be capable.”

Blair asked attendees to join Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, Valley Watch, Earthjustice and others in their fight.

“We have the ability to stop this plant, and we’re going to,” he said.

More on