IDEM gets an earful on coal-to-diesel permit

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
John Blair of Evansville, president of Valley Watch,  addresses the crowd gathered in the Heritage Hills High School auditorium during a public hearing hosted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in Lincoln City on Wednesday. The hearing was held for citizens to comment on the permit draft for the direct coal hydrogenation plant planned for Dale. 


LINCOLN CITY — More than 400 people gathered in the Heritage Hills High School auditorium Wednesday evening to voice their concerns about or support of a proposed $2.5 billion coal-to-diesel plant for Dale.

The public hearing was hosted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the agency tasked with deciding whether to issue Riverview Energy an air permit for the proposed project, which would sit on more than 500 acres of land annexed into the Town of Dale last year.

According to a citizen summary IDEM released to hearing attendees, the air permit “would give the plant the capacity to use up to 1.6 million tons per year of coal as feedstock to produce diesel, naphtha and other products.”

The same summary says that if a permit applicant, such as Riverview Energy, “demonstrates that it will be able to comply with all federal and state laws regarding air pollution control, IDEM is required by law to issue the air permit.”

At the hearing, attendees were able to submit written comments to IDEM about the draft air permit the agency released in October. They were also able to voice their comments verbally and on the record in front of all of those in attendance.

IDEM did not answer any questions Wednesday evening. According to Doug Wagner, an IDEM official at the hearing, the agency will use the comments “to see if there’s changes we want to make to the permit. We will also answer every comment, every question in writing when we make our final permitting decision.”

Attendees who spoke at the hearing were from various industries and communities and many addressed how the plant will affect youth and their future.

Robin Mann of Evansville, left, and Chad Hoffman of Newburgh listen to speakers Wednesday.

Valerie Schmidt spoke in favor of the development, saying it will provide youth with opportunities.

“My children would like to stay in Spencer County,” she said. “They do not want to work minimum wage jobs.”

Riverview Energy has said the plant would bring the area 225 “high-skilled, good-paying jobs” and more than 2,000 construction jobs (many union members attended the hearing in favor of the jobs the development would bring).

But even though Riverview would bring jobs into the county, it could cause other jobs to leave, according to John Pund, safety and environmental manager for machinery manufacturer Thermwood Corporation in Dale. The company has been in the community for 40 years and employs nearly 100 people, many of them in high-skilled jobs like those promoted by Riverview.

“Our president and CEO has made it very clear he is displeased with this plant locating here as this location will cause more problems in finding good workers to come work at Thermwood,” Pund said. “We do not wish for what he plans to do if this happens. He has indicated to those entities [that] if this plant locates here, we will then have to locate elsewhere for proper employment.”

Heritage Hills High School junior Daley Atchison spoke against the plant, saying “for all those who think the youth want this for jobs and more opportunities, you’re wrong.”

“I too want to live in Spencer County for the rest of my life. I want to be an AP English teacher in this very building. I want my kids to graduate from Heritage Hills and live out their lives here. But I do not want to worry about increased cancer rates that my children will be susceptible to and the smog they will have to grow up with instead of clean air. I will not allow the C2D (coal-to-diesel) plant in my community.”

Other speakers voiced opposition in that possible pollutants from the plant would harm youth. They raised concerns about exposure to pollution during pregnancy and early childhood, and a possible link pollution has to special education rates and autism.

Brandon Mehringer of Haysville listens to speakers inside of the Heritage Hills High School auditorium during a public hearing hosted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on Wednesday in Lincoln City. Mehringer came to public hearing to support his union Local 136 Plumbers and Steamfitters.

Dr. Norma Kreilein, an area pediatrician, has seen the health effects pollution has on youth firsthand at her southwest Indiana practice. She’s also seen links between pollution and infant mortality.

Kreilein told the IDEM officials that their science is flawed — the draft air permit states that the Riverview Energy plant would not have significant environmental impacts — and that “Indiana refuses to even consider pollution in its infant mortality work, despite the fact that Indiana basically ranks rock bottom amongst 50 states on air and water quality.”

The hearing’s youngest speaker, 10-year-old Jude Koch of Evansville, provided a youth’s perspective. She is worried about how the plant would contribute to climate change.

“The United Nations warns we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe,” she said. “What type of future I have will depend on you today. Climate change will mean I will face food shortages, floods, droughts, stronger tornados and diseases from mosquitoes and ticks.”

Caroline Ellis, who once lived in Ferdinand but now hails from Evansville, shared similar concerns about climate change. She said carbon dioxide is a “premier driver of climate change” and this plant will release it, although the draft air permit shows it within state and federal standards.

“We’re looking at the immediate,” she said. “We have got to look a little bit further into the future. ... We should be putting the brakes on every bit of carbon dioxide pollution we possibly can.”

Nancy Schroer, who has lived in Dale for 54 years, encouraged IDEM to consider the human beings that she claims would be adversely affected by the plant. She added that pollution matters and “thousands of studies have shown that air pollution harms people.”

However, she’s not only worried about air pollution.

“My deep concerns are [that] this refinery would be a major source of air, water, light, smell and noise pollution,” she said.

Jude Koch, 10, of Evansville, listens during the hearing. "My grandma does a lot of things for the environment and I wanted to help too," Jude said of her reasons for attending the hearing.

Others opposed to the plant told the IDEM officials that Indiana’s air quality monitoring is flawed. Spencer County has one monitor in Dale and it only measures for fine particulate matter. So, IDEM went elsewhere to get modeling numbers for other pollutants.

“The reason there’s only one monitor is that monitors are placed on guidance which is often based on population,” said Mary Hess, a Dale resident and leader of the Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life advocacy group. “So you had to go 280 miles away to South Bend, Indiana, to get your modeling numbers.”

Tom Utter, the executive director of the Lincolnland Economic Development Corporation, is responsible for recruiting Riverview Energy to Spencer County. He urged IDEM officials to approve the air permit as is, “recognizing the process that IDEM has gone through over the last eight months for this permit to protect the environment and let us bring in industrial development and create an industrial base.”

Kathy Reinke, who grew up in Santa Claus but has lived in Dale the last 23 years, also joined those in support of the project. She is the executive director of the Spencer County Regional Chamber of Commerce and her husband is a seventh-generation farmer and chief of the Carter Fire District. Reinke is heavily involved in community organizations in Dale and Spencer County.

“I tell you all of this not because I am in a job interview, but because I want you to understand how invested and engaged my family and I are in this community and we absolutely love our community,” she said. “Business and industry move in and out of Spencer County and every other county on a regular basis, but not often does a $2.5 billion direct-coal hydrogenation plant make itself present.”

She said Riverview Energy would bring an abundance of opportunity, such as tradescraft jobs during construction; 225 permanent, full-time jobs; the supportive companies and services that would receive ongoing business from Riverview; and economic growth opportunities for Dale and the county.

“Along with the mecca of opportunities, however, comes concern, uncertainty and fear of the unknown, which I totally understand,” Reinke said. “It is unfortunate as to the amount of animosity that has arisen between friends and neighbors due to differing opinions either in favor or against the plant.”

She added: “Friends, what it comes down to is whether it [the Riverview proposal] abides by local, state and federal law. That is what it is. That is the bottom line. Are they abiding by the law? As the chamber director, I am welcoming of this opportunity and the possibilities it brings with it.”

More than 400 people gathered in the Heritage High School auditorium Wednesday evening to voice their concerns about or support of a proposed $2.5 billion coal-to-diesel plant proposed for Dale.

Several speakers offered the perspective of stewardship in opposing the plant.

Agnes Kovacs focused on stewardship and faith, Catholic Christian faith, which she said shaped the life of those who originally settled in this region and still shapes the life of those here today. Kovacs is a Santa Claus resident who works at the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. She grew up in a Catholic family in Hungary.

“Stewardship recognizes that all of creation is gift, that we human beings are entrusted by God to care for and cultivate these gifts,” Kovacs said. “While no individual or generation owns these gifts, they’re to be shared and passed on from generation to generation.”

She asked that in light of the Church’s teaching about stewardship, how do the details of the Riverview proposal measure up?

“How does this proposed facility help us appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature, unless by providing a stark contrast to it?” Kovacs asked. “How does increased air pollution help protect and preserve our environment? How does the risk of exposure to harmful poisonous chemicals enhance human life? Ultimately, how will future generations judge our stewardship?”

Jerry Steckler, owner of Steckler Grassfed, an organic farm located less than a mile from the plant’s proposed site, also had a message of stewardship, but his focused on nature. He opposes the plant in defense of his children, neighbors, livestock and the environment in which food is raised.

“In order to run a successful organic farm, we must create an environment in which our plants and animals can thrive and survive,” Steckler said. “Our livestock faces the same challenges as people do when forced to endure the pollutants the industrial world and this plant could bring to us.”

He said the proposed coal-to-diesel process is not responsible stewardship of nature’s resources.

“We are here asking for your help in maintaining what meager environment we have left in this area,” he said.

The public notice period for the draft air permit ends Monday. After the notice period ends, IDEM will consider the comments and questions and move forward with making a permitting decision. According to an IDEM spokesperson, that decision will come sometime next year.

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