Photograph by John Blair

The A.B. Brown power plant on the Ohio River in Posey County holds its coal fly ash in ponds like the one that burst in Tennessee in December, contaminating and destroying homes and land with toxic sludge. Indiana utilities store more coal fly ash in ponds than in any other state.

The spill of coal fly ash from a holding pond in Tennessee on Dec. 22 dumped 1.1 billion gallons of sludge, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Such sludge contains coal combustion waste products, among them arsenic, lead, barium, thallium and other substances that can cause cancer, liver damage, neurologic disorders, and other serious ailments. Covering 300 acres, the spill was 48 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

And it could happen in Indiana, which stores its coal ash in human-made lagoons like the one in Tennessee. In fact, Indiana's fly ash ponds store more coal ash than any other state, according to an Associated Press (AP) analysis of Department of Energy data from 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Indiana has 13 ash lagoons in the same number of counties; the largest is at a PSI facility in Gibson County, which contains 897,800 tons of ash, according to the AP.

Coal combustion is the single greatest contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. In the 19th century, coal burning was the modern way to create electricity. Today it is an outmoded and dangerous practice.

"Coal combustion is one reason why Forbes magazine ranked Indiana 49th in environmental quality."

Coal combustion is one reason why Forbes magazine ranked Indiana 49th in environmental quality. The magazine says Indiana suffers from “a mix of toxic waste, lots of pollution and consumption and no clear plans to do anything about it."

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Indiana produces 96.2 percent of its electricity with coal, according to Purdue University. That makes the state the foremost emitter of all the states when in comes to carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas. Citizen's Action Coalition of Indiana says it also makes Indiana the No. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide per capita in the country.

Indiana's coal-fired power plants emit 134 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Purdue. In 2000, the Union of Concerned Sciences said the state exported about 24 percent of the electricity it generated, with Hoosiers absorbing the pollution without receiving any benefit from the electricity.

Coal combustion has serious public health consequences, including asthma, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, stroke and sudden infant death syndrome.

Indiana has the second highest emissions of nitrogen oxides, the third highest emissions of sulfur dioxide (strongly associated with human deaths) and the fourth highest emission of carbon dioxide and mercury.

"Dirty Air, Dirty Power," a 2004 publication from the Clean Air Task Force, says Indiana is fifth in the nation in mortality and per capita deaths related to power plant emissions. Indianapolis ranked as the 15th metropolitan area in the country for deaths related to such emissions. Terre Haute ranked 12th in the nation for per capita deaths related to plant emissions.

That all translates to 887 deaths, 1,491 heart attacks, 114 lung cancer deaths, 21,532 asthma attacks, 618 cases of chronic bronchitis, 845 hospital admissions and 1,274 visits to emergency departments for asthma attacks per year in Indiana.


Photograph by John Blair

Duke Energy's Gallagher Generating Station in Floyd County stores coal fly ash in ponds on the banks of the Ohio River.

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According to an Opinion Research Corp. survey on Oct. 18, 71 percent of Midwesterners support a five-year moratorium on the construction of new coal plants. The same survey found that 88 percent of U.S. citizens support phasing out coal plants and phasing in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and Columbia University professor who has spoken out about global warming for decades, has called for not simply a moratorium but a ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

"We have only four years left to act on climate change – America has to lead," he said in a recent London Guardian interview. He went on to say that President Barack Obama's four-year administration offers the world a last chance to change the course of global warming. If it fails, global disaster, including "melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinction and spreading desert" are inevitable.

Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels combined, Hansen said. "Before the end of Obama's first term, we will be seeing new record temperatures. I can promise the president that."

Opposition builds

For many activists it's not enough that the general public opposes coal use and supports a moratorium on new plants. They are mobilizing resistance to coal burning as they mobilized around nuclear power plants some 30 years ago.

"We have only four years left to act on climate change – America has to lead."
- James Hansen, NASA climatologist

A week after the November elections, the Alliance for Appalachia hosted a meeting in Charleston, W.V., attended by 25 state, regional and national organizations, to mobilize against mountain top removal for coal mining and to initiate a campaign for a clean energy future. One project that developed from the meeting was 100 Days to Power Past Coal, which began on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration. The purpose is to urge the Obama administration, individuals and organizations around the country to join or initiate actions that focus on a clean energy future.

The organizations that met in Charleston "planned the 100 Days of Action project in order to amplify their collective voice, add value to their local work, and build a national movement to power past coal."

On Jan. 21. a small group in Montclair, N.J., launched the 100 Days of Action by gathering on the town's busiest street corner with picket signs.

"Thousands of people saw us driving by,” according to Ted Glick, one of the participants. “Scores of cars honked in response to our 'honk if you're against dirty coal' and 'honk if you're against global warming' signs."

Also on Jan. 21, thousands of people called the White House demanding that President Obama "Say YES to renewable energy, Say YES to energy efficiency, Say NO to carbon capture and sequestration [burying carbon waste underground], Say NO to nuclear power."

Citizens Lean on Energy Action Now (CLEAN) is another coalition composed of 100 organizations in 42 states working together to encourage the United States to adopt a clean energy policy that focuses on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Friends of the Earth is calling for an immediate ban on new coal-fired power plans along with a rapid phase-out of current coal plants and substitution with clean energy alternatives and energy efficiency.

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Some activists see resistance to coal plants as so critical that they are planning civil disobedience at the federally owned Capital Power Plant, near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 2. The organizers, Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, said in an announcement, "There are moments in a nation's – and a planet's – history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction.”

"There are moments in a nation's – and a planet's – history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction."
- Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, writers, activists

“We don't come to such a step lightly," they went on to say. "We have written and testified and organized politically to make this point for many years, and while in recent months there has been real progress against new coal-fired power plants, the daily business of providing half our electricity from coal continues unabated.

“… So we feel the time has come to do more -- we hear President Barack Obama's call for a movement for change that continues past election day, and we hear Nobel Laureate Al Gore's call for creative non-violence outside coal plants. … Part of our witness in March will be to say that we're willing to make some sacrifices ourselves, even if it's only a trip to jail. We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested."

Their goal is not to shut down the plant for the day but to point out that the worldwide daily reliance on coal is the issue. Greenpeace expects the action to be "the largest mass civil disobedience against global warming in U.S. history."

"This is one small step to raise awareness of that ruinous habit and hence help to break it," Berry and McKibben  wrote.

Numerous organizations are handling the logistics of the action, among them the Energy Action Coalition, Greenpeace, the Ruckus Society and the Rainforest Action Network.

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2009 is ushering in a new environmental resistance movement, a movement to end coal combustion and switch to renewable energy sources. Considering Indiana's abysmal record on coal combustion, Hoosiers should be at the forefront of the movement.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.