We Can’t Afford Coal

This week I attended a meeting to learn more about Indianapolis Power and Light’s Harding Street plant, the largest industrial polluter in the city. IPL has no plans to retire this 55-year-old coal plant, even though the EPA says it’s responsible for 88 percent of industrial toxic releases in Marion County. The plant’s smokestacks annually release 130 pounds of mercury into the air.

That has a devastating public health impact. One attendee spoke of being an asthma sufferer. “I know what it’s like to struggle to breathe and have to go to the ER…It breaks my heart to think that our power is the reason children have to go through that.”

Photo by Karl Anderson, via flickr Commons.

Photo by Karl Anderson, via flickr Commons.

As I found while researching an Indiana Living Green story about the Beyond Coal movement, poor children are disproportionately affected by coal because of where they live—resulting in learning disabilities, asthma, autism, and lowered IQs. They’re effectively trapped into a cycle of poverty, suffering lifelong difficulties linked to our state’s over-reliance on coal.

Two city maps made the plant’s impact visible. One showed asthma-related ER visits in Marion County, and the other depicted mercury levels in waterways and soil. In both cases it was clear how the neighborhoods northeast of the plant (including my own) are burdened as the prevailing winds blow the pollution our way.

I myself can trace some of my health struggles to these toxins. I moved to this neighborhood in 1996 from northern Indiana. I noticed that I got sick more often, and for longer periods, than I used to. By 2000 I was dealing with chronic illness. The origins were complex, but tests for heavy metal toxicity showed elevated levels of mercury in my body.

“If you love your lungs, get out of Indianapolis,” says a real estate blog, fingering my beloved city as the unhealthiest in the nation because of its poor air quality.

And then there’s the coal ash ponds. A nationwide 2011 EPA study identified 11 high-hazard coal ash ponds. Two of them are at the Harding Street plant. These unlined, aging pits are right next to the White River. I don’t even want to think about what would happen in the event of a major flood. Or if an ash dike ruptures, as happened in Kingston, TN, in 2008.

Knoxville News Pic

A house sits in the coal ash spill near Kingston, TN in Dec. 2008. Photo by Knoxville News Sentinel.

Apparently IPL doesn’t want to think about it either, even after two coal ash spills at its Martinsville plants sent more than 30 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the White River in 2007 and 2008.

Does it have to be this way? No, it doesn’t. Whether you look at it from a public health perspective, a fossil fuel emission perspective, or even through a financial lens, coal is a bad bet. Rate hikes to retrofit the aging plant are a poor use of our money. For inspiration, we can look to neighboring states. Iowa gets 24 percent of its power from wind—with rates similar to ours and no reliability issues.

The Indiana Beyond Coal campaign is all about making our voice heard. If enough people speak with their city councilmen and -women, write letters to the editor, and engage with IPL’s 20-year energy plan, things can change.

As organizer Megan Anderson said, “It’s as simple as getting together and talking to friends and neighbors.”

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