“Three of the six women in our office have battled breast cancer and a fourth is battling liver cancer,” Dr. Erin Marchand said. “I don’t know how you could look at that and not wonder why.”
Marchand is a family medicine physician practicing in Santa Claus. She moved to Southern Indiana after completing her service in the Air Force — her husband Tony’s family is from Perry County.
Earlier this year, she stepped up to voice concerns she about the proposed $2.5 billion direct-coal hydrogenation plant that could be built in Dale.
Delaware-based Riverview Energy filed an air quality permit with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in January for the plant. Since then, the Town of Dale has completed the annexation of more than 500 acres of farmland on the town’s north side. The land is adjacent to old U.S. 231 between County Roads 2000N and 2100N. The town then rezoned the land for industrial use for the potential plant’s use.
According to Riverview Energy’s plans, the plant would convert 1.6 million tons of coal into 4.8 million barrels of diesel and 2.5 million barrels of Naphtha. Naphtha is used in gasoline, plastics and solvents. They claim the process won’t burn or gasify coal.
Marchand is part of a groundswell of concerned citizens in Spencer and Dubois counties that have been asking questions about the plant since the plans were revealed. In response to town officials’ inability to answer questions and the general lack of information about the proposal, a grassroots group — Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life — formed in March. To help inform the public, Marchand created a website, noc2d.com (no coal to diesel), to post information for the public.
On Wednesday, Marchand joined Dale resident Mary Hess and retired chemical engineer Randy Vaal to address a crowd of about 200 people at the Forest Park Jr./Sr. High School Auditorium regarding the coal-to-diesel plant. The forum was hosted by Project Acorn and sponsored by Sierra Club and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life to inform the public about the plant’s health, environmental and economic impact on the region.
Marchand told the crowd she and her husband moved to Indiana after leaving the Air Force because her husband wanted to be close to his family. “I said sure, why not? It’s pretty,” the California native explained. “Driving up here you see all the corn growing and a lot of people have ponds in their backyards. It’s gorgeous. I wouldn’t go back to California for anything. It’s nothing like what we have here.”
She explained that it wasn’t until she heard about the proposed coal-to-diesel plant that she learned of Indiana’s abysmal environmental record.
Marchand found that according to the EPA’s Toxic Releases Inventory database in 2016, Indiana is the 6th largest polluter in the country and Spencer County is the 23rd largest polluter among more than 3,000 counties in the country.
She explained that the Center for Public Integrity created a list of 22 super-polluters in the country and that four of them were located in Southern Indiana with one being located in Spencer County — the Rockport Power Plant. To create the list, the group compiled the datasets for the top 100 greenhouse gas producing companies and the top 100 toxic releasing companies, the 22 companies considered super polluters appear in both those datasets.
“This plant [Riverview] has the ability to be another super polluter,” Marchand told the audience referring to the amount of greenhouse gas and pollution Riverview estimated the plant would create according to the air permit filed with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Referring to a worldwide study of pollution, Marchand reported findings that pollution kills more people than smoking, war, murder, AIDS, hunger, natural disasters, malaria and tuberculosis combined. “I think the title of the article was ‘Pollution kills more people than everything else,’” she added.
Studies connect pollution to lung cancer and increased bladder cancer rates as well as preterm birth, infant mortality (Indiana has the 8th highest infant mortality rate in the nation), slowed lung growth, heart attacks, strokes, asthma and COPD.
Marchand also pointed out that this plant would be located about a mile from an elementary school and nursing home in Dale. Children and the elderly are the most at risk for acute symptoms related to high concentrations of pollution.
Referring to Governor Eric Holcomb’s recent statement that the state wouldn’t allow anything that would harm its citizens, she pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that “numerous studies are finding important health effects from air pollution at levels once considered safe.”
“Governor Holcomb when asked directly about this plant said ‘we aren’t going to do anything to hurt people,’” Marchand said. “We have standards in place to try to help people but they are finding that those standards aren’t good enough. Kinda like a long time ago they thought that asbestos would make great insulation and now they realize that was not a good idea. The standards they have now are not safe enough … even if they are meeting the minimum, it doesn’t mean it can’t harm us or our children.”
Randy Vaal also spoke Wednesday. The Ferdinand native who now lives in Santa Claus drew upon his expertise as a chemical engineer with 30 years in the oil and gas industry to point out several issues with the proposed plant.
Vaal spent a large portion of his career working with Gulf Oil and later, Chevron, where he was primarily in charge of natural gas processing plants.
“In many ways, a lot of units in a natural gas processing plant are similar to what we will be talking about tonight in this gas plant, this coal-to-diesel plant,” Vaal told the crowd.
He outlined the company’s plan according to his research into their air permit pointing out what he saw as economic fallacies.
“The future for oil is pretty bleak,” he explained. “Most of the oil we produce is used by cars. If you haven’t noticed, cars are using less and less gas every year.”
He added that habits like ride-sharing and the influx of electric vehicles will continue to impact oil usage as they become more commonplace. Five countries have already announced an end date for the sale of vehicles that use gasoline or diesel, he said.
“As global demand for oil decreases, oil prices are going to drop,” he said. “And as oil prices drop, this plant becomes less and less economical.”
He explained the future of coal is even bleaker than that of oil. AEP announced they won’t be opening any new coal power plants and will reduce their reliance on coal power plants from 47 percent to 33 percent, he explained. Vectren said they will be closing three coal plants.
“Europe’s largest bank said they are not going to fund investments in new coal plants,” Vaal said. “Coal is not the future, as much as the people in this area would like it to be. Coal has seen its day in my opinion.”
As a case point for the economic feasibility of the Dale project, he used the South African chemical company, Sasol, as an example. While South Africa was embargoed for human rights violations during Apartheid, Sasol created fuel from the country’s coal supplies using this type of technology. When Apartheid ended and oil could be brought into the country, Sasol attempted to take their technology out into the world to little success. They recently announced they were abandoning the process completely, according to Vaal.
He added that it is interesting that the process Riverview will use to create diesel requires natural gas and liquid petroleum. “That’s two things they have to buy that an oil refinery basically gets for free,” he posited.
He also pointed out that the plant will produce many pollutants. Those include coal dust which causes black lung and has resulted in explosions at coal mines as well as hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the process.
“Hydrogen sulfide is a deadly gas and it has been responsible for many deaths in my former industry — oil and gas,” Vaal said.
He pointed out that in the oil industry, hydrogen sulfide is removed from natural gas at remote locations due to the danger.
“This plant, amazingly to me, actually produces hydrogen sulfide as part of the process,” Vaal said. “It’s deadly poison so they can’t just vent it to the atmosphere, thank God. They are going to try to turn it into sulfur. It’s done with a well-known process, but it’s not foolproof.”
He added that regardless there would still be the danger of poisoning as well as the smell of rotten eggs.
“They can claim all they want that it’s not going to smell,” he said. “It’s going to smell.”
Additionally, Vaal pointed out that the plant has no plan to minimize the carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gas) and have planned emissions of sulfur dioxide. “This is a bad pollutant,” he explained. “We don’t want this.”
According to the EPA, “elevated sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels while at moderate exertion may result in reduced lung function accompanied by such symptoms as wheezing, chest tightness, or shortness of breath in asthmatic children and adults. Other effects associated with longer-term exposures to high concentrations of SO2, combined with high levels of particulate matter, can result in respiratory illness, alterations in the lungs’ defenses, and aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease. Those at risk include individuals with cardiovascular disease or chronic lung disease, as well as children and the elderly.”
He explained after the meeting that during the 70s, oil companies were looking into this technology and other similar processes to combat the oil embargoes that greatly increased the per barrel cost of oil. Speaking to the economics of the process, he explained that even then, the technology was not seen as an economically feasible method to overcome the huge oil price increases.
“What worries me the most is that somehow this company will cobble together enough money from tax incentives and crazy investors that they’ll build this thing, operate it for a year, realize it’s not making any money and they’ll walk away from it declaring bankruptcy,” he said. “We’ll be stuck with this behemoth, $2.5 billion monstrosity for the rest of our natural lives.”
Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life director Mary Hess also spoke briefly during the forum. The retired Dale post office worker explained she will be able to see the refinery from her kitchen window.
“We are concerned citizens who have found our voices to share information with you,” she said. “It makes me sad to think that the first impression people will have on their journey across our state on I-64 as they enter the rolling hills of Southern Indiana will be this huge plant with flares and four 100 foot stacks of coal. North Spencer County is the gateway to Hoosier National Forest, Holiday World and Lincoln Park.”
Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life plans on hosting another forum in the near future and will appear at the upcoming public hearing regarding the air permit application.
Information about Riverview Energy can be found at riverviewenergy.com.