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Indiana's dependence on coal is complicated

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State Line Generating Plant in Hammond, Indiana
  • State Line Generating Plant in Hammond, Indiana

For a long time, coal has been the backbone of Indiana's power supply.

"Indiana runs on coal," Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb said in his State of the State speech on January 17, which, he also mentioned, is one reason businesses like Indiana: energy is cheap.

Hoosiers on average produce between 32 and 35 million tons of coal each year. Now, though, harsher environmental regulations, coupled with cheaper and cleaner substitutes, have set the state on a path toward more diverse energy sources and cleaner practices toward coal.

Indiana currently has 15 surface mines and nine underground coal mines. Those mines and Indiana's need for coal have created jobs and stimulated local economies. But coal is not a clean source of energy. Mining, burning and disposing of coal has numerous drawbacks to Indiana's environment and its people. Now, there are less environmentally harmful, but still competitively priced, options available to Hoosiers to power their homes and businesses.

As the future of coal use in Indiana hangs in the balance, a new bill proposed in the Indiana House of Representatives aims to allow the state to adopt rules regulating the disposal or reuse of coal ash residues.

Indiana's production of coal in 2015 earned the state a rank of eighth place in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal production comes at a cost, to both the environment and local economies, Tim Maloney, the senior policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council, says.

"The concern about coal is not only how you dispose of the ash after it's burned or how you control the air pollution when it's being burned at power plants, but it's also what happens when you dig it out of the ground," he says. Coal mining presents several hazards to the environment, including loss of natural habitat and water contamination, among others.

The drawbacks to coal don't stop there. According to the DNR's website, the coal industry provides over 2,500 jobs and $750 million to local Indiana economies annually, but not for very long. In a boom and bust-type scenario, Maloney says coal companies stimulate the economies of the communities they enter into when they are mining. This comes through an increase in jobs and tax revenue. Coal mining jobs, Maloney continued, are generally well-paying, which provides a boost for those local communities.

But, when the coal is gone, so are the coal mining companies, and they take with them the jobs and tax revenue.

"When the companies move on, [the communities] are left with nothing," he says. "Trying to maintain that as a significant part of our economy just really doesn't make sense in the long term."

While Indiana is a national powerhouse for producing coal, it has also been a powerhouse for using it. Indiana as a whole consumes more energy than it produces, according to the EIA, and Hoosier residential energy use per capita is "well above" the national average. The EIA states that this is due to the state's weather extremes, which cause a larger-than-normal need for energy and electricity.

Another area where Indiana's coal ends up is in the industrial sector. Indiana's heavy presence in the steel industry means that a lot of coal is delivered to coking plants for use as coke for steel.

Recently, though, because of harsher environmental regulations and cheaper substitutes, coal has become a smaller part of Indiana's energy makeup.

"All Indiana utilities are broadening their power base," Maloney says. Electric utility companies, he continued, are steering themselves away from using coal because of costly environmental control regulations, high environmental risks and competitive options. One such alternative is natural gas.

Natural gas has become a cheaper form of energy for the state, and power from renewables like solar and wind have become more viable options as well, Maloney says.

Already, Indiana's production of coal is decreasing. In 2015, Indiana produced just over 34 million short tons of coal, according to a report by the EIA. This, according to data from the Indiana Coal Council's coal production reports, represents the smallest amount of coal produced in the state since 2007.

In place of coal, Hoosiers are turning to sources of energy like natural gas and ethanol, as well as renewables like solar and wind power.

The harmful effects of coal do not end when it is burned to create energy. The next question in the debate over coal is what to do with the coal ash left over after coal is burned.

That question was partially solved in April 2015, when the EPA issued rules governing the disposal of coal ash. Adopting the rules was made voluntary for the states, but Indiana decided to go ahead with them.

The rules include practices for the disposal of coal ash in landfills and surface impoundments, or lagoons, as well as for beneficial use, which is where Indiana came across a snag in the plan, Maloney says. The issue is that existing laws will not allow the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to regulate beneficial use.

Enter House Bill 1230, which aims to allow IDEM to adopt the EPA's guidelines. Maloney testified on the bill when it was passed through the House Committee on Environmental Matters on Wednesday.

Beneficial use is the practice of reusing coal ash through repurposing it. Examples, Maloney says, include mixing it into concrete and asphalt, where it is used as a strengthening agent, using it as filler material for buildings and using the material as a form of fertilizer for agriculture.

Maloney says reusing the coal ash in concrete and pavement products is the method that provides the least environmental risks. Using it as a filler material or fertilizer, he continued, presents a high risk of contamination.

"The real basic, fundamental principle of properly managing and disposing of coal ash is to keep if from coming into contact with water," Maloney says. Coal ash contains heavy metals, which can become toxic at certain levels. When coal ash comes into contact with water, Maloney continued, the metals are leached out into the environment and the water supply, causing hazards for both human and aquatic life, as well as the environment.

The House Committee on Environmental Affairs unanimously voted to pass the bill to the House, with the amendment that instead of the proposed starting date of July 1, 2017, the bill go into effect as soon as it is passed.

If passed into law, House Bill 1230 will give the Environmental Rules Board and IDEM the ability to alter existing Indiana code regarding coal ash disposal to follow rules set forth by the EPA. This means the state will have the power to ensure a safe and contamination-free water supply for residents.

Coal has historically been a staple source of energy in Indiana, but the time has come when the risks are outweighing the benefits, especially when there are less risky substitutes.

Governor Eric Holcomb, in his State of the State speech, proposed using "technology and innovation to find new ways to unleash this abundant source of power by burning coal cleanly..."

"We want to see the state move away from using coal," Maloney says. "and you can do that without sacrificing lifestyle." He says more efficient practices like better air conditioning and lighting are a start. Following up with finding out how much energy is needed and looking for the best and most sustainable way to produce that energy are the next steps, he continues.

"That's not going to happen overnight," he says. "This is going to take some time and we'll be burning some coal for a while." N


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