Two Southern Indiana environmental groups have won one stage in a battle to halt the construction of a coal-to-diesel plant in Dale, Indiana, that they believe will negatively affect health, quality of life and tourism in the area.
An air quality analysis that was initially withheld from the public found that emissions from the plant would exceed the cancer risk threshold established by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. IDEM issued the permit despite the analysis.
A judge with the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication agreed with the environmental groups that IDEM had failed to follow public participation requirements, withholding crucial information about the proposed plant and making it impossible for the public to make informed comments within a reasonable time frame.
The ruling, by Judge Catherine Gibbs, responded to the first of six counts included in the petition. Gibbs will hear the remaining five counts on or before June 29, the date she has set for a trial in Indianapolis.
In January 2018, Riverview Energy proposed building the first ever coal-to-diesel plant in the United States in Dale. Opponents of the plant say the town board annexed the land rezoned it for industrial use before issuing detailed information about the plant to the public and before citizens had a chance to ask questions or voice any concerns.
A group of concerned citizens formed Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life to increase transparency between Riverview, the county/town governments and citizens.
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.
However, 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 2 miles of an elementary school.
IDEM’s 1,229-page preliminary findings report found the plant would have “no significant impact on human health.”
Attorney Lauren Piette of environmental law group Earthjustice, which is representing Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life in Dale and Evansville-based Valley Watch in the case, said the permit was deeply flawed and they felt it was an important case to take on.
In June 2018, Earthjustice requested all records regarding Riverview Energy from IDEM. IDEM published a draft of the air permit in October 2018 and took public comments until December that year.
IDEM responded to the records request on June 3, 2019. It issued the air quality permit eight days later.
A draft of the air quality analysis for the Riverview facility, included in the records released after the public comment period, shows internal discussions about Riverview’s exceedance of IDEM’s cancer risk threshold.
“I have been informed internally that despite the fact these values are over the cancer risk, that the permit wasn’t going to be denied as a result of the Hazardous Air Pollutants analysis,” a IDEM employee says in the records. ”From what I understand they are more guidelines.”
Southern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life and Valley Watch filed the petition to appeal the permit in July 2019.
They said if they had had the records prior to the public comment period, they would have made different comments based on the new information. They said they didn’t have enough time to respond between receiving the records and IDEM’s issuing of the permit.
IDEM says it cannot comment on ongoing litigation.
Mary Hess, one of the leaders of Southern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, said her group is continuing to hold public meetings to bring awareness about the plant.
“A lot of people don’t understand it yet,” Hess said. “It’s hard because there is no transparency from the local government.”
If Gibbs rules in favor of Southern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life and Valley Watch on all counts, the permit would be remanded back to IDEM to address issues that made it unlawful. Such rulings would not cancel the building of the plant.
“We just hold our breath because we still have five more counts to go and then the trial in June,” Hess said. “However, we do have extremely cautious optimism.”