Courtesy photograph

Students at IU and other campuses across the nation are organizing against burning coal for energy. Among the IU Coal-Free Campaign are Novella Shuck, Nick McKay, Lauren Kastner, Amber Wolverton, Emily Jackson and Megan Anderson.

Coal is the No. 1 single cause of global warming, and a student environmental movement has arisen around it. IU students have their own vigorous IU Coal-Free Campaign, which targets the university’s coal-fired power plant. Lauren Kastner, an IU sophomore and Ernie Pyle Scholar in the IU School of Journalism, is the president of Coal-Free IU and talks about the campaign below.


LG: Tell me what the IU Coal-Free IU Campaign is about.

LK: Coal-free IU is a Sierra Club-sponsored campaign. The Sierra Club is the largest environmental organization in the country. In 2009 the Sierra Club and the Sierra Students Coalition launched a campaign called “Beyond Coal.” It’s a national campaign that’s taking place in communities and on college campuses, and Coal-Free IU is one of those campuses.

IU’s dependent on electricity that’s generated by coal that we purchase off the grid from Duke Energy. We want to see the university switch from this outdated and dirty technology to clean, renewable technology, like experiments with biomass or solar or wind or another renewable that will sustain our campus, and of course conservation is a huge part of our effort as well.

LG: What have you been doing on the coal campaign?

LK: We’re a grassroots campaign to educate our students and our community about the issue and get people behind it, and that’s shown through petitions, holding rallies and meetings, and a lot of educational events, like panel discussions, and lectures and film showings, things like that that extend our presence on campus so people know about us and the issue and also to draw attention to the issue so students are aware of where our energy comes from and make an impact and making sure that the university is doing the ethical and responsible thing when it comes to energy consumption. We have participated in some national activities because we are part of a broader Sierra Club Student Coalition at work.
"If one campus like IU-Bloomington which makes a decision, it will have a domino effect across the state on every campus."
We also work at the state level; we’re connected with tons of other campuses across the country and learn from them and exchange ideas and even work on big projects. We pair up with other schools to go to the EPA’s office in Louisville and to assert that we want coal ash to be dealt with as a hazardous waste material by the EPA.

Of course, IU is part of an institution, so we work at the state level and the community level, reaching out to community members and community groups to tell them especially the public health effects that they might be suffering from because of the energy consumption on the IU campus. Of course, at the campus level, mobilizing and educating students and communicating with our university administrators.

LG: Are you trying to get all the IU campuses off coal or just the Bloomington campus?

LK: Our focus now is the IU-Bloomington campus because it’s the biggest. Because we live in a state that’s 97 percent dependent on coal, every campus purchases coal for electricity, so if one campus like IU-Bloomington makes a decision, it will have a domino effect across the state on every campus. IUB has a coal plant, but I’m not sure about IUPUI. Some of the other campuses don’t generate their own heat because they’re not big enough to do that, but we are targeting the central heating system here because it’s the direct source, it’s a point source of mercury and heavy metals.

LG: What are some of the environmental effects of coal burning?

LK: The process starts with mining; you either have mountaintop removal or traditional mining, both of which are devastating. If you’re a public institution in the state of Indiana like IU you have to purchase Indiana coal, so luckily our coal is not mined by mountaintop removal, which is incredibly disastrous. So it’s the mining, the coal dust, the particulate matter entering the water in the community and then the burning, where you traditionally have fly ash or particulate matter that’s emitted.

Luckily our coal plant has a system of scrubbers, which means that a lot of that stuff is filtered out and can be in the 90th percentile. That’s a recent addition to the heating plant; that means that most of the particulate matter is collected, but you’ve still got SO2, which can cause acid rain. Coal burning is the No. 1 cause of global warming. Pretty much every single lake and stream in Indiana is contaminated with mercury. And it gets into fish, and everyone feels the effects; it can cause brain defects. There’s mercury in a woman’s uterus, and in fact one in six women have enough mercury in their bodies to affect their fetus. It’s definitely not good stuff in any way no matter how you slice and dice it.

And of course the coal ash has to go somewhere -- you’ve got this by-product, very fine particulate matter, like baby powder, after you burn the coal, and that has to be stored somewhere. In Indiana we have incredibly lax coal ash storage restrictions, so technically you’re supposed to have a site that’s completely covered and there’s no leakage into streams. Unfortunately that’s not the case in Indiana.

The coal ash from IU goes back to the site where it was mined, which is basically a big, open pit of coal ash sludge. Luckily we haven’t had anything disastrous happen in Indiana -- but, for example, I think it was in 2008 in Tennessee there was a huge breach of one of these coal ash reservoirs that completely wiped out the community and was disgustingly disastrous, and that was basically a mudslide of coal ash, which is this toxic, harmful material. So if it’s not properly managed, if we don’t have regulations from the EPA, the storage of this coal ash is just as destructive as the mining and the burning of it. It’s a cradle-to-grave cycle of destruction.

LG: What is the group doing right now?

LK: This semester we’re just getting off the ground, trying to recruit students and bringing our attendance back up to get geared up for this semester. We do have some exciting things happening. In April we are hoping to install a system of 10 solar panels. Last semester we won a $12,000 grant from the IU Student Foundation. They have something called a senior challenge grant, which is kind of like the legacy gift for graduating seniors. They donate a certain amount of money; it goes into a fund that teams of students can then submit a proposal for, and there’s a competition to win the grant for improving the IU campus.

We submitted a proposal for solar. We thought that with that amount of money what we’d like to do as students is to actually start investing in clean energy on campus. And make it student led because we’ve seen a lot of inaction on the part of the university administrators to make the call to get off coal. We decided we’re sick of it, let’s do it ourselves. This is going to have a great impact on the campus, for future solar and other clean energy projects.

LG: Where are the solar panels going to go?

LK: We had to work with the university architect’s office to find a good location that would be at the right angle, there’s no canopy, no disturbance with direct sunlight, and we could to do it most cheaply. It’s not a huge system; it only is going to produce about 2 kW of power. We didn’t want to spend tons of money installing this thing when we want to get the maximum of solar power out of it. So what we finally decided on was the top of the student union. There’s a flat roof section of the student activities tower, and that is going to be perfect for it. The union has already been approved and surveyed for solar in that area because the union is undergoing a project called “Greening the IMU,” which is going to do an entire LEED certification process over the next few years.

LG: What does LEED stand for?
"The coal ash from IU goes back to the site where it was mined, which is basically a big, open pit of coal ash sludge."
LK: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

LG: Is that a federal program?

LK: Yes, it’s through the U.S. Green Building Council. There’s a beneficial certification process. You can rack up different points to get a different grade; I think it’s silver to platinum or something along those lines. It’s the way that you build the building, how you track the waste material and what you do with your waste and disposal process and how much energy the building is consuming, anything that has to do with the environment and how you handle it to be the lowest impact.

The IMU project is being piloted at the union to kind of serve as a model for the rest of the campus, to say hey, we can take this extremely old building on campus and retrofit it to be energy efficient and low impact.

LG: When do you expect it to be up and running?

LK: We’re aiming for the week after Little 500. Another big event that’s happening in April is Sustain IU; that’s happening with several student organizations and Student Sustainability Council. The council puts on an event called Sustain IU, a week of programming, lectures, other activities, hands-on environmental projects -- a broad range of events showcasing and educating the IU community about environmentalism. It’s kind of a week-long themester. We’re planning to integrate the solar panel installation that week. But because of construction constraints and other things that come up with projects like this, it will be running hopefully by the end of the semester.

LG: Have you worked at all with local community groups such as SIREN [Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network]?

LK: We did work with them last year. We worked with Michael Beczkiewicz [from SIREN]; he sat on the panel discussion that we sponsored. The topic was energy at IU. He sat on the panel as a community member, along with Bill Brown, who’s the director of sustainability; Jeff Kaden and Ben Brabson. And we also partnered with SIREN for a rally that we had to launch the campaign. However, we have lost contact with some of our community connections. We’re aware of groups in Bloomington like Earth Care and the Bloomington Eco-Center. They do wonderful work, and of course we know community groups like the Growers Guild. This semester one of our primary goals is to reestablish those connections in the community.

LG: Do you have faculty and staff participating? Ben Brabson is a faculty member.

LK: Ben Brabson is wonderful: he helped us on solar projects and is very supportive of our work. As a student organization on campus we have to have a faculty advisor. Our faculty advisor is Professor Morris Manning from the creative writing department, the English department, and he is a perfect example of why this issue pertains to everyone, even if you’re not in the physics department or the environmental or SPEA. He grew up in Kentucky and has had personal experience with his community being destroyed with mountaintop removal and how the coal industry can be in Appalachia. He keeps us grounded and reminds us that it’s a human issue, not only because humans are part of the environment.

It’s a social justice issue, an environmental justice issue, and so he’s a beautiful reminder of how everyone has a stake in the site. Last spring he and some others in the creative writing department, along with Scott Russell Sanders, sponsored a mountaintop-removal-awareness event, when he brought in some wonderful writers and musicians from Appalachia and showcased a reading of their work and their music attached to the pain that’s happening in Appalachia due to mountaintop removal and the coal industry. Then last semester, for themester, we had Wendell Berry come. He has been a huge advocate for anti-coal action and activism.

It’s really exciting as students to be able to work on something like this, and college is a perfect time for us to do this kind of work. Historically it’s the youth that have led movements like this in the past, the civil rights movement. The environmental movement is a big throwback to the civil rights movement in that it’s students that are rising up and demanding change here. So it’s great that we’re able to do this on campus, but at the same time we feel like we have a lot of hurdles.

And it’s hard work, especially in 2011, to mobilize students. Frankly, they can be pretty apathetic at times, and they’re distracted and don’t fully grasp that this is their future that we’re heading for and the prosperity of not only America but of the world. We have all these urgent pressures on us like climate change, bringing our economy back, creating clean and safe jobs. There are all these pressures, and students need to embrace our responsibility.
"It’s really exciting as students to be able to work on something like this, and college is a perfect time for us to do this kind of work."
LG: How did you get involved?

LK: I actually just worked my way up. I started out as a volunteer, so the way that this campaign was launched was that the Sierra Student Coalition sent some community organizers to campuses, so we had an organizer come to IU and get this thing off and running. The coordinator is gone, so now it’s completely student run. So I just started out like anyone else, on the street; I signed the petition and put down my name for wanting to volunteer and get some more information, and I just started volunteering from there. And then I became an active coordinator on the campaign, which meant that I was responsible for coordinating certain activities and adding responsibility, and then in the second semester I got elected president, and I’m still in that position. The campaign has grown; there’s been a lot of turnover. It’s great to see new faces, but there are several of us from the original campaign.

LG: Assuming we stop burning coal completely, which is really important to global warming, what do you think should be done will all the coal mining and coal burning workers?

LK: The jobs question is one that comes up a lot. And the truth of the matter is that while we recognize that some jobs might be lost, the actual net economic benefit for taking coal plants off line and introducing clean energy jobs is incredible. And truthfully it’s actually the coal industry that’s destroying more jobs than renewable energy, and that’s because with new technology and machinery the industry can do a lot bigger and better of a job with machines than they can people.

They’re destroying many more jobs because they have the technology to do it , especially with mountaintop removal. Instead of having miners digging or working physically, they employ dynamite and massive machinery to do the work, and so truthfully it’s the industry that’s destroying more jobs than clean energy would, and especially with mountaintop removal. And the other truth is that if you look at places where mining happens the most, in West Virginia, West Virginia has some of the poorest counties in the United States, and that’s because the coal industry has come in and literally suffocated everything else in that area. It’s been said that you have a choice between flipping hamburgers or mining coal.

So there’s no chance for economic prosperity or upward mobility in those areas, and that’s because the coal industry has done that on purpose and makes no other option so that generations of Appalachians have no choice but to remain employed by these dangerous, dirty jobs. That’s not to say that the lives of miners should be taken away or threatened by mining jobs being taken away. It’s the responsibility and ethical thing to transition these jobs slowly, and of course the overall United States transition off coal is going to be a long-term one. And so there’s really nothing to worry about there.

LG: You mentioned biomass. Are you aware that is southern Indiana there are three places fighting off biomass? And that biomass is a very hazardous technology?

LK: Biomass is sort of an ambiguous term because it can mean a lot of things. Biomass comes in a lot of different forms. I definitely do agree. In some cases biomass can be just as polluting, or more so, as coal. So we do recognize that. However, we are supportive of research and innovation as long as it’s done efficiently and we don’t turn into another disaster like so-called clean coal. There is no such thing. We don’t want biomass to become the new catch phrase for being a clean technology if it truthfully isn’t. It’s not like every other technology besides coal is cleaner because that’s not the case. The same goes for natural gas.

LG: I was just going to ask you about that.

LK: Natural gas is another tricky one because it is a fossil fuel. But realistically it does burn half the amount of CO2 that coal does. It doesn’t have any heavy metals, the mining process is quite different, and you don’t have the disposal problems that you do with coal. As a transition fuel we accept it as another necessary evil as a fossil fuel but recognize that’s absolutely not a permanent solution. It’s not renewable. It still has harmful effects.

There is a mining process that is quite harmful in places like Pennsylvania, where they’ve got a lot of hydrofracking problems taking a toll on communities and their water. It’s absolutely disgraceful. The way that we treat natural gas is that okay, if you have to do this for a few years just to get off coal to figure out what your next step is. We don’t support it as a long-term solution.

LG: Fracking, though, causes permanent damage. If the gas is used temporarily, there’s going to be a lot of permanent damage from the fracking.

LK: It is another fight. There’s a safer way of doing it. You don’t have to use the chemicals that go into hydrofracking to extract natural gas. It’s kind of the same thing with mountaintop removal: there’s a very small amount of coal for the amount of disturbance that you cause. It’s the same thing -- there’s tons of permanent damage with fracking when you don’t have to do it. Just like you don’t have to use mountaintop removal to remove coal.
"The truth of the matter is that while we recognize that some jobs might be lost, the actual net economic benefit for taking coal plants off line and introducing clean energy jobs is incredible."
The central heating plant on IU’s campus is piloting some biomass this semester. I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially since they are compounding a mix of biomass and coal. Coal and other organic materials. So they’ve got different combinations, like 80 percent and 20 percent.

LG: Are they using wood or something else?

LK: Highway grass clippings. You can use a lot of different things. I know the University of Iowa uses biomass that comes from Quaker Oats. The mill is just down the road. They get all the hulls from it and use that as biomass. They have been piloting it in the central heating plant, and they’ve been working with some companies to see if they can burn biomass in our plant.

LG: Are they actually burning it?

LK: I don’t think they’ve started purchasing it in large quantities. It comes as a kind of a pellet, a briquette. It has to be a certain size to fit in the stoker and the boilers, and it has to have the right balance of duration, how long it burns, and temperature to provide enough energy. So they’ve been testing that out.

LG: What do you think are the chances of getting IU off coal?

LK: I think it’s doable, and it’s necessary. It’s hard in a state like Indiana, where at the legislative level you don’t have a renewable energy standard. There are very few incentives to do it. It’s going to be hard. I think what we really need is a strong student community and faculty coalition for it that is demanding this of the university for them to find the right solutions specific to this campus. What doesn’t take a lot of effort is a public commitment and the promise to do it. What is harder to do is to form a time line.

So basically what we’re asking for is a commitment. We’re not saying, you have to switch over tomorrow and never burn coal ever again. We’re saying, you have to be prepared for the inevitable fact that coal plants are going to disappear in the coming years, and the university has to be prepared.
What we’re asking of them is to make the wise decision not to be caught with their pants down when all of a sudden the EPA, the Department of Energy and the state will start demanding that public universities like IU have to start finding their energy from somewhere else. What we’re basically trying to do is to make sure that the university is prepared for that, and by making a commitment now, acting sooner rather than later, they’d be prepared when in 10 or so years they have to transition off of coal permanently.

LG: Have you had any problems with the coal industry?

LK: We actually haven’t. We feel very fortunate that we haven’t had to do that. We’ve got friends like at universities like Washington University in St. Louis that are fighting the coal industry from all sides on their campus. It’s horrifying. One of their board of trustees at Washington University is from Peabody Coal. He was just named by Rolling Stone as one of 10 people who are the reason why we don’t have clean energy legislation.

We’re very lucky that we don’t have administrators that are basically in bed with the coal industry as at other campuses. We haven’t had a lot of backlash. We haven’t actually been confronted by the coal industry here; it’s a good thing, but it also might mean that we’re not being loud enough to draw attention. That’s something to consider when we think about campaign strategy, but in general we’re glad we don’t have to deal with corporations.

LG: Did you know that biomass is a very big issue with forest activists because of the wood burning in biomass plants?

LK: I didn’t know going into this that it wasn’t a single issue; there’s so much more. One thing I’ve learned in the past year is that everything is interconnected with everything, and it totally is a social justice issue in so many ways.

Linda Greene can be reached at