Report Lists Ohio as Top Polluter

Madeline Stocker, News Editor

Environment Ohio, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, recently released a report detailing Ohio’s power plants as the second most polluting in the country. The plants are Ohio’s largest source of carbon pollution, and are responsible for 48 percent of statewide emissions each year — the same amount of carbon as emitted by 2.5 million cars. The report, titled “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants: Their Oversized Contribution to Global Warming and What We Can Do About It,” is a large step in environmentalists’ efforts to create a cleaner and more sustainable Ohio.

Members of Environment Ohio, hope that this report will provide an aspect of transparency on environmental issues that previous efforts have failed to address. “Our main goal with the report is to emphasize that power plants are the elephant in the room in the sense of global warming, and right now they’re completely unregulated,” said Vivian Daly, field associate for Environment Ohio. “We need to create standards for carbon pollution from power plants if we’re going to address the issue of global warming.”

According to the report, Ohio has six of the top 100 most polluting power plants: General James M. Gavin at seventh, JM Stuart at 25th and FirstEnergy W. H. Stannis at 39th.

To environmentalists such as Daly, the most alarming aspect of the report is the impact on the environment. “We’re already seeing the cost of global warming — 2012 was the hottest summer in Ohio with a record-breaking drought. The biggest cost right now will be inaction. Scientifically, global warming will cause more pollution [and] more weather events that will devastate our community and cause destruction of property.”

Although the report frames carbon power plants as a large contributor to climate change, some of those plants view themselves as having little to do with the environmental crisis. “The recent Environment Ohio study does not take into account the size of the plants included on its list, nor the efficiency with which they produce power,” FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Thornton said in an email to the Review. “Larger plants by nature will have higher emissions than smaller plants. FirstEnergy’s Stannis power station is one of the largest plants in Ohio and was recently retrofitted with a $1.8 billion air emission control system. The top 50 plants on PennEnvironment’s list represent only two percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.”

According to a report released by Environment America, the environmental affects seen by global warming are apparent despite the debate over their causes. By the end of the century, the global sea level is projected to rise by as much as 2.5 to 6.25 inches and temperatures are projected to rise by as much as an additional seven-11 degrees Fahrenheit should global warming pollutants continue to be produced at their current rate.

A 2011 report by the Clean Air Initiative detailed another threat brought on by carbon pollutants. In the report, the General James M Gavin Power plant is listed as causing 45 deaths each year as well as over 850 types of illnesses, including asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks. Combined, these ailments have generated over $350 million in various medical bills. In 2010, the combination of all of FirstEnergy’s power plants was listed as causing 419 deaths each year as well as over 7,990 illnesses. The projected cost of treatment of these ailments exceeded $300 billion.

“We need to start acting — we can’t just continue to ignore it. Right now the best way to do that is to limit the global warming pollutants from power plants because they are the single largest source of carbon pollutants in our nation,” said Daly.

For Environment Ohio, this means going directly to the source. Both the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced that they will be addressing and releasing standards on power plant pollution this coming year. The organization, operating under the broader Climate Action Coalition, plans to send a public report to the Obama administration regarding the president’s climate plan.

“We’re collecting petition signatures from individual voters in Ohio, [and] we’ve already collected public comments from over a quarter million Ohioans who believe that global warming pollutants should be limited in power plants,” said Daly.  “We’re also looking for elected officials in the area who support our campaign, and [are working on] getting this information to the president and to other legislators so that they know that people want reform.”

For the past several, Oberlin students and faculty members involved in the fight for sustainability have undergone a similar struggle. The central heating plant, a coal-fired power plant that’s a part of Oberlin College’s Service Building, has been the subject of debate for the past decade. Although the plant is scheduled for reform in the upcoming year, there are still many challenges associated with the switch to natural gas.

“[The heating plant] has been around for so long, and it’s provided a lot of jobs for people,” said Bridget Flynn, Oberlin’s sustainability coordinator. “It’s really tied to their livelihood and their well-being in some way, although it’s also tied to degradation of people’s livelihood and well-being, so it just depends which side you’re on, what you’ve seen and how you’ve been impacted. This area was so industrial for so long and has lost so many jobs to overseas; people want jobs, and I think they feel threatened that if power plants go away, well what’s going to take it’s place?”

Cindy Frantz, the chair of the Committee on Environmental Sustainability and associate professor of Psychology, views the renovation of the coal plant as a fiscal necessity. “Replacing the coal plant is really, really expensive,” said Frantz, “and the trustees are trying to protect the institution fiscally. But the thing that put the nails into the coffin was the EPA regulations. To keep the coal plant we would need to put an enormous amount of capital into refurbishing it, and it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Despite both the Office of Sustainability’s and the Committee on Environmental Sustainability’s insistence that the switch to the natural gas will provide plenty of “green jobs,” there are some who are skeptical. One individual, who asked to remain anonymous, questioned the integrity of the College’s switch to natural gas. “I think it’s a real shame that the coal is going away and being replaced with gas boilers. Oberlin College burns less coal in a year than a major power plant does in one day,” said the anonymous source in an email to The Review. “Has anybody thought about anybody else like the miners and transportation and the industry for coal, or do we not care about anybody else except Oberlin?” The source, who is affiliated with Oberlin’s Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning department, expressed discontent not only with Oberlin’s switch to natural gas, but also with the EPA’s restrictions in general.

“We have to have balance, man has to work, and yes, we do need to clean up the environment. The auto industry has done a terrific job in cleaning up the way cars run today. Man can do the same thing with the power plants if the EPA would just get off our backs and man would open his eyes. The EPA is driving man out of work. The Oberlin College power plant could have run for another 10 years with some upgrades. During that time we could have definitely made better decisions on how to go forward with being green at Oberlin,” he said in an email to the Review.

Despite all of its challenges, Oberlin’s switch to natural gas proved to be a “best-case scenario,” according to Frantz. “Unlike for-profits who generate electricity, Oberlin has built [a sense of morality] into its core mission. We really do hold ourselves to higher standards. I think that that thread of ‘we do the thing that’s the right thing to do even if it costs us money’ was always part of the conversation, and I doubt that that’s part of the conversation with these for-profit coal companies.” To Frantz, the “right thing to do” is to protect community members whose well-being is compromised by carbon emissions from local power plants.

“There are a lot of very poor people in southern Ohio who are getting completely screwed over health-wise so that people up here can have clean electricity. I see it as a human rights issue, a social rights issue and an economic justice issue. I think that almost every environmental issue has this social justice aspect as well, and I think it’s really important to talk about both,” said Frantz.

Frantz also thinks that it’s important for students to get involved in the push for natural gas. She suggests that students pay close attention to the energy policies of candidates in the 2014 governor’s election and that students looking to get involved in the fight for natural gas should campaign for the candidates with the most energy-efficient policies.

“What happens in Ohio really matters,” said Frantz. “We are very much a swing state; we’re really in the heart of the nation. I think that whether it’s voting or working on regulations, or whether or not we’re the state that’s producing the most carbon dioxide it really matter, and what we do really matters. I think that any activism that’s generated by this report to make changes in Ohio [is beneficial] … it’s not just about changing Ohio.”