So many important decisions about Indiana’s future are made without the public discussion and debate they merit. I&M’s plan to refurbish its giant power plant in Rockport, Indiana, is one of them.
The Sierra Club, which leads a national campaign to replace coal-fired utility plants with cleaner energy sources, has suggested alternatives to I&M’s multi-billion-dollar plan, which Sierra says will allow the utility to continue to use coal for all its electrical generation until at least 2035. The environmental group maintains that alternative investments in solar and wind power and energy-efficiency programs could allow I&M to shut down one of the two Rockport facilities by 2022 without raising rates or jeopardizing the availability of electricity.
Environmentalists focus on the Rockport facility because it is a big polluter – one of the biggest sources of toxic pollution in Indiana. Though I&M plans to introduce new controls to reduce sulfur dioxide at the plant, environmentalists point out that coal is an inherently dirty power source and that many other harmful substances are emitted when it burns.
Sierra’s analysis of data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contends that, in 2014, I&M’s two Rockport plants released 5.9 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the surrounding area, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
"Experts at the Clean Air Task Force estimated in 2014 that AEP Rockport’s air pollution causes 130 premature deaths, 200 heart attacks and 2,200 asthma attacks every year," the Sierra Club reported on its website.
That pollution and those health problems, of course, don’t directly threaten Fort Wayne. But 32 miles east of Evansville on the shore of the Ohio River, the Rockport plant provides a key part of what I&M calls its "generation mix" that allows the company to ensure affordable power to all of its service area. Thus, customers here have a direct interest in Rockport’s operations and plans.
No one wants to cause future power shortages or rate spikes. But there is the question of whether a future built on continued reliance on the coal industry, where costs are rising and production is dropping as the world moves toward cleaner and more sustainable power sources, is wise policy. And how do the health effects of years of continuing pollution in southern Indiana figure into the economic and moral equations? If the Rockport plant is causing death and disease, as the Sierra Club contends, shouldn’t the human cost of that continuing damage be part of the calculations on how to proceed?
Responding to the Sierra report, I&M’s Brian Bergsma did not dispute Sierra’s figures on total toxic waste emissions from Rockport, though he noted that more than half of that figure is ash from burning coal.
Bergsma, I&M’s director of communications and state government affairs, emphasized that the company is moving to other sources of power. In 2015, for the first time, half of the company’s electricity was generated from nuclear, hydroelectric and solar power and purchased wind power, Bergsma wrote in an email. "I&M is adding solar power now and expects to add more in the future," Bergsma wrote, noting that AEP has reduced its overall emissions by 30 percent since 2005.
"By the end of 2016, AEP will have retired or refueled 28 coal-fueled generating units," Bergsma wrote. He added, "I&M is constantly evaluating the best ways to provide customers safe, reliable affordable power amid changing market conditions as well as changing expectations and regulations regarding emissions."
Jodi Perras, who directs the Indiana Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal project, contended in an interview that the company could move faster. "At the Sierra Club’s request," she said, "I&M looked at replacing both (Rockport) plants with clean energy, Unit 1 in 2022 and Unit 2 in 2028." Shutting down the first unit, Perras said, would especially make sense, because I&M doesn’t own that part of the facility and the lease is up for renewal in 2022. Instead, she said, "they’re planning to keep polluting."
So while I&M says it is moving fast and staying flexible about the future, environmentalists contend that the company is locking itself into years or decades more of dependency on coal.
I&M’s customers – and all Hoosiers – deserve to know that everything possible is being done to move away from the human and economic costs of continuing to rely on coal. Rockport’s future deserves a deeper public debate than can be achieved by power companies and environmentalists trading news releases.