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County Council votes against coal company

Wheaton, Sarah | Friday, September 23, 2005

“Thank God our government still works!” was the exulted cry of New Carlisle resident Bonnie DeMyer after the Saint Joseph County Council voted 7 to 2 Thursday to block the building of Tondu Corporation’s proposed integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal plant.

In what one member called the most difficult decision he had to make in his 25 years on the Council, the group made a surprisingly strong stand against the plant that was slated to be built in New Carlisle.

One councilman in particular shocked residents by switching his vote at the last minute to help defeat the plant.

The highly controversial issue attracted strong public interest, and the Thursday meeting was so full that people had to sit in the hallway and strain to hear. The meeting was called to order several times after spontaneous bouts of applause broke out after each council member who voted against building the plant.

Several councilmen said they had heard the people’s “pleas” and cited strong public opposition as a reason for their vote. Those who did support the plant cited the possibility of decreased pollutants over time if Michiana’s other power plant were closed and noted the economic benefits a new plant would bring to the area.

“Cancer Ally” is the term some scientists used to refer to the heavily polluted Indiana-Michigan border corridor, and citizens were worried that the new coal power plant would make things even worse. But the new plant would have used cutting-edge technology to gasify coal instead of burning it – a supposedly much more efficient and clean process.

Some residents were convinced that the method proposed by the plant is a clean and efficient way to meet Indiana’s energy needs. Some concerned citizens, however, founded the Michiana Quality of Life organization and were dedicated to halting construction of the plant.

Organization members claim in their mission statement that the plant would have “a long-term, severely negative impact on the health, future job opportunities, small business viability, property values and overall quality of life in Michiana.” The group also worried the plant would release 3 million tons of carbon dioxide gas per year – the equivalent of 10,000 cars running continuously each day.

Others believe the plant would be environmentally safe. Joan Brennecke, Notre Dame professor of chemical and bio-molecular engineering and director of Notre Dame’s Energy Center, will not endorse any particular company or project, but said she supports the technology.

“I think [the technology] is vital to meeting our country’s energy needs in an environmentally responsible fashion,” Brennecke said. “The proposed IGCC would produce less nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide than our current eight megawatt Notre Dame power plant.”

Professor Allert Brown-Gort, an associate director at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies and a resident of New Carlisle, has been actively campaigning against the proposed plant. Brown-Gort called the technology “incredible.”

“If it were replacing the existing plant I would probably be all for it,” Brown-Gort said.

However, because the proposed plant would be used to supplement – not replace -Michiana’s current energy plant, Brown-Gort is against the new plan.

“The bottom line is, I just don’t understand what we’re getting in exchange for putting our water and the health of our citizens at risk,” he said.

Tondu Corp., on the other hand, said even with significant improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, more power plants will be required in Indiana. Based on Department of Energy forecasts, Tondu projects Indiana will need 3,000 new megawatts by 2010.

Besides environmental concerns, Brown-Gort also worried about the corporate citizenship of Tondu Corp, saying Tondu has a history of suing the communities with which it conducts business. In Michiana’s case, Tondu had been pushing for a rush approval so that they can take advantage of subsidies from the federal government made available to energy companies in the latest energy bill, he said.

Brown-Gort says he is not convinced of the need for such urgency and said the town “can’t trust them.”

Notre Dame professor Christopher Welna agreed and said Tondu’s history shows they are not good corporate citizens.

“[Tondu] looks for economically disadvantaged areas where they can go in, promise a lot, take advantage of federal subsidy programs and depreciation costs, then pull out and leave communities with white elephants,” he said.

Coal is the country’s most plentiful fuel resource, but burning it is also one of the most impure processes available. Coal gasification, an alternative to coal burning, supposedly reduces the harmful environmental effects of burning.

Professor Frank Incropera, dean of engineering at Notre Dame, said there is no disputing the fact that ICGGs provide the cleanest approach to utilization of coal for power generation.

“They are far superior to conventional coal-fired power plants in terms of their overall efficiency, as well as their significant reduction of atmospheric pollutants,” he said.

Despite this endorsement, opponents of the Tondu plant were adamant in their stance.

“I think it would be a giant step backwards for this formerly industrial town to allow Tondu to build a dirty plant that doesn’t bring jobs or tax benefits,” Welna said. “As a parent, I do not want my children breathing even more pollutants.”