Jobs vs. Health? Controversial Coal-To-Diesel Plant Would Be First in U.S.

February 13, 2019


DALE, Indiana-- Mary Hess sits at her kitchen table wearing a bright yellow “No C2D” shirt, making notes on her laptop, rapidly listing off air emission statistics to the person on the on other end of her phone as though she were a scientist, not a retired postal worker.

Hess is preparing for an Indiana Department of Environmental Management listening session regarding the air permit for the proposed Riverview Energy coal-to-diesel, or C2D, plant in Dale, Indiana. She’s helping a fellow member of Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life fine-tune the statement she would be reading later that night at the Heritage Hills High School in Lincoln City.

“Last night I got to bed before midnight for the first time in a month,” Hess said. “I had just dozed off when somebody in our group had texted me just after 11 pm. I have gotten texts or phone calls at 2 o’clock in the morning. I keep thinking, ‘Oh, can we coast after this?’ But I know we can’t. We can’t let our guard down.”

The high school auditorium ended up overflowing with 400 people both for and against the proposed plant.

The proposed coal-to-diesel plant in Dale would look similar to this current coal-to-liquid plant in the northwest China.

Dale, a town of about 1,500 people in Spencer County, sits along Ind. 231 between Jasper and Lincoln City. It’s a peaceful rural community, where everyone knows and looks out for one another.

Early in summer 2017, rumors started going around town of an industrial plant that might be built. Definitive answers were hard to find, and town board members waited until all the permits for construction were passed before making an announcement on Jan. 25, 2018. Having passed the town’s permit process, Riverview is now waiting for IDEM to release its decision on an air quality permit for the plant before construction can begin.

Since the plant was announced, residents of Dale and the surrounding area have been divided on whether or not it would be good for the community. Along the town’s streets, “No C2D” and “Friends of Coal” signs perch on adjacent lawns.

“It is unfortunate as to the amount of animosity that has risen among friends and neighbors due to differing opinions either in favor or against the plant,” said Kathy Reinke, Spencer County Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director during her statement before the IDEM listening committee. “It seems it’s been more indecisive than even when we were dealing with Trump vs. Hillary.”

Kathy Reinke, Spencer County Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director spoke in favor of the plant at the IDEM listening session on December 5, 2018


Coal-to-diesel technology has been around since the 1920s and is currently being used in China, South Africa and Russia. However, if the Dale plant is built, it will be the first time the technology has been used in the U.S.

Coal-to-diesel plants have been proposed before in other states, including South Carolina, Alaska and Kentucky, but all have eventually been canceled. The Dale plant was originally proposed in Vermillion County in 2010. But the project didn’t advance, and Riverview turned instead to Dale, which Merle said is ideally situated because of its access to coal mines, transportation networks, water and natural gas.

Riverview’s coal-to-diesel process would pulverize coal and mix it with an oil such as crude oil, creating a slurry. Hydrogen, from natural gas, would be added to this slurry, creating ultra-low-sulfur diesel.

Ultra-low-sulfur diesel reduces the amount of airborne sulfur emissions that cause smog, as opposed to regular diesel. It’s also more efficient, meaning heavy machinery could run longer on one gallon of the ultra-low-sulfur diesel than on regular diesel.

Illustration by Alexa Chryssovergis

Riverview Energy president Gregory Merle, a member of the National Coal Council whose family has been in the coal business for six generations, said byproducts of the process would be put to good use. Coal ash would be sold for use in construction rather than stored in potentially hazardous coal ash ponds. And elemental sulfur would be used as an agricultural product.

One of the key reasons many Dale residents support the plant is because they see the potential for higher-paying jobs in the area, both at the plant and also in other sectors.

Indiana coal mines supplying 1.6 to 1.7 million tons of the coal for this plant would put an additional 150 coal miners to work and help offset a 4-million-ton loss of coal due to federal and environmental regulations, according to Indiana Coal Council president Bruce Stevens.

Indiana Coal Council President Bruce Stevens believes this plant would be good for the future of Indiana coal production and also help bring more economic opportunities to Spencer County.

“A coal miner will make $80,000 to 100,000 annually,” Stevens said. “You don’t have those opportunities in a lot of other sectors in that part of the state.”

Boilermaker Timothy Broomfield agreed.

“Right now in the Dale area, there are jobs available, but they pay minimum wage or just above,” he said. “That really isn’t a sustainable amount for a person to raise a family on.”

But Hess is skeptical. She said hiring signs are common in the community, at businesses such as Spencer Industries or Best Chairs, and the unemployment rate is low.

“It doesn’t make sense. We don’t have the people to fill the jobs we’ve got,” she said.

The Riverview plant initially would supply about 2,000 construction jobs, along with 225 permanent jobs including petroleum engineers, maintenance workers and safety monitors.

Mary Hess began Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life with other residents of Dale who oppose the plant being built because of health concerns.

People in the community are hopeful these jobs might entice younger people who have left Spencer County to return. However, Hess says that isn’t what she has heard.

“Part of what the development corporation says is they’re bringing this in so kids will stay,” she said. “We are also hearing from millennials who have moved away. The reason they don’t come back to Spencer county is because of the environment. It is more about health of their kids and for their selves.”


According to Riverview’s own air permit application, the plant would release around 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, 225 tons of carbon monoxide and 120 tons of sulfur dioxide annually.

The proposed site of the plant is within a mile of nursing home and within two miles of an elementary school.

IDEM reviewed the application, and in its 1,229-page preliminary findings report found it would have “no significant impact on human health.”

Hess doesn’t buy that argument.

“When you consider there is going to be 60 tons of hazardous air pollutants – including carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and hexane released, and you’ve got 2.2 million tons of carbon every year out of this plant – how can that be insignificant?” she said.

The proposed site of the Riverview Energy coal-to-diesel plant in Dale.

Indiana ranks as the sixth worst polluter in the U.S., according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. Rockport, 23 miles south of Dale, ranks 18th out of the 50 worst polluting towns in the country.

During the IDEM hearing in December, 47 people spoke against the plant and seven in favor. However, the audience was equally divided between pro-coal and no-C2D shirts. Residents on both sides were passionate in their comments. IDEM is still reviewing 200 pages of testimony from the hearing, as well as other comments.

“I’m very disappointed I have to be here tonight because that means you all aren’t doing your jobs,” resident Joseph Nickolick told the IDEM authorities at the hearing. “Your job is to protect the environment, not to be the Better Business Bureau. The word ‘management’ in your name says it all. You think you can manage pollution and you can’t. Any pollution is too much. It has a cumulative effect.”

Joseph Nickolick spoke against the plant being built at the Dec. 5, 2018 IDEM listening session, saying IDEM wasn't doing its job in protecting the environment.

Dr. Norma Kreilein, a pediatrician who has been practicing in Southwestern Indiana for 30 years, also spoke at the hearing and said she is already seeing problems in her patients that she attributes to pollution.

“This area is disproportionately burdened already,” she said. “I see a lot of the complications of pregnant mothers’ high blood pressure, delivering early children and delivering sicker children with respiratory issues because of the stress in the womb. Autism and attention deficit disorder, anxiety, still births, just more of everything and more severe than what we should be seeing.”

Dr. Norma Kreilein spoke about the health effects of pollution on children before the IDEM listening committee on Dec. 5, 2018

In September a study released by the National Academy of Sciences linked lower intelligence to air pollution, especially in boys. Additionally, a previous study from the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Open found that even lower levels of pollution were associated with increases in mental illness in children.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, the state average for students in special education classes is 15 percent. For the 2017-2018 school year, Rockport Elementary had a 28 percent special education rate, Chrisney Elementary School 23 percent, and David Turnham Education Center in Dale 16 percent. Indiana defines special education eligibility to include autism, learning disabilities such as ADHD and severe anxiety issues.

Kreilein said it’s a mathematical certainty pollution from the Riverview plant will affect the community’s health.

“Indiana tends to operate by the rule of if the tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it then there’s no sound,” she said. “You know if we don’t monitor and measure, then nobody’s sick, and there’s no impact.”


Merle said Riverview is complying with all current environmental regulations.

“We’ve come a very long way in reducing these harmful pollutants that people are afraid of, and regulations are in place,” he said. “There are monitoring requirements, and IDEM and the EPA exist to insure we continue to develop our economy and our society in a way that is not detrimental to our health.”

Riverview President Gregory Merle believes this plant would be a great opportunity not only for Dale but for the United States as well.

Broomfield said he wants clean air and water for his children, and having read through the IDEM permit, he feels confident in the steps Riverview is taking to ensure compliancy.

“I work in these industries, I build the pollution control systems in these industries and I know that we can have good paying jobs and we can have clean air at the same time,” he said.

Steve Hurm, another boilermaker who attended the IDEM hearing, said, “This is what people have been wanting for about 50 years now. This facility uses coal but doesn’t burn coal. And so, when they try to compare it to some of the other facilities around here that are burning coal, it’s apples and oranges. It’s a different type of plant.”

Stevens of the Indiana Coal Council agrees there is a need for health and safety regulations, but said there also needs to be a balance.

“In the previous federal administration, it seemed as though we were getting poked in the eye every day by something new rolling out of one of the federal agencies,” he said. “While the boot of the federal government isn’t on our throat these days, there are many things that were passed that were very onerous to our industry, that we’re still dealing with and having to come to terms with.”

One of the rules that has hit Indiana coal production the hardest has been the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which set a national limit on mercury emissions and reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and fine particles from coal-fired power plants. Some of the older plants in the state decided not to upgrade their systems to meet the new requirements and either shut down the plant or switched to natural gas. This caused a drop in the need for coal within the state.

“I think there are many things that can be generated from coal, not just electricity,” Stevens said. “It just has a bright future if it is given a chance to stand on its own. As one individual told me recently in regard to the Riverview plant, he said, ‘Coal is becoming too valuable to burn.’”


On Jan. 25, the Lincoln Economic Development Commission held its annual board member luncheon at the Spencer County Youth and Community Center in Chrisney. LEDC president Tom Utter has been spearheading the Riverview plant project in Spencer County.

Tables were set with statuettes of Abraham Lincoln sculpted from coal as centerpieces and coal-shaped chocolates as treats for attendees.

A statuette of Abraham Lincoln sculpted from coal.

The main speaker at the event was Riverview president Gregory Merle, as well as Bruce Stevens and Terry Seitz, a representative for Indiana Sen. Mike Braun.

“The finalization of this investment in a coal-to-diesel plant marks a significant achievement for both Spencer and Dubois counties,” said Seitz, reading from a statement from Braun. “While on the campaign trail, what I heard repeatedly from coal miners was they wanted someone in Washington that would represent them and their interests. Someone that would keep the industry strong and advocate for them. I intend to be that voice.”

Merle said it was important for him to be present to show gratitude for the community’s support for Riverview.

Members of the Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life also attended the luncheon, and after it was over, several members spoke with Merle.

“The discussion went well, and I’m glad the LEDC let us come,” said member Randy Vale of Santa Claus. “We invited Merle to meet with us and have a civil and informed discussion. I don’t want to battle this out in the press, but we will if we have to.”

Vale is a retired chemical engineer who worked in the oil and gas business for 30 years. He isn’t against oil refineries, but he is against the Dale plant because he believes the coal-to-diesel process requires more energy and will cause more pollution than using already existing crude oil.

“I don’t think this plant deserves to be built anywhere, especially not within the town limits of Dale so close to a nursing home, elementary school and homes of residents,” he said.

Assuming IDEM approves the project, Riverview has 18 months to begin construction. Riverview is still in the process of securing financing, and Merle said that process could also take 14 to 18 months.

“It’s a long process, and of course any financers and investors are looking for very specific milestones to make sure the project will in fact move forward, this permit being one on the main ones,” Merle said. “We are on track in the process.”

Merle believes the company will have a market advantage due to a ruling by the International Maritime Organization requiring all shipping vessels to use low-sulfur diesel by 2020. The ruling was based on the results of a 2016 that concluded if emissions weren’t cut, “air pollution from ships would contribute to more than 570,000 additional premature deaths worldwide between 2020-2025.”

If IDEM does issue a permit for Riverview, Hess says her group will appeal the decision and keep the public aware every step of the way.

“We’re not giving up, that’s for sure,” she said.

Jobs vs. Health? Controversial Coal-To-Diesel Plant Would Be First in U.S.


A $2.5 billion coal-to-diesel plant has been proposed by Riverview Energy in Dale, IN. Those in favor believe it will create jobs and bring other economic opportunities to Spencer County. Those opposed believe it will create more air pollution and lead to health issues for citizens. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is currently reviewing Riverview's air permit application. If this plant were to be built it would be the first in the US.