Photo Caption: Demonstrators hold an anti-coal vigil outside OU’s Cutler Hall Friday.
The handful of people who did show up, however, said they believe they speak for many others, and think OU is paying at least some attention to their concerns.
Gary “Spruce” Houser, a local environmental activist who helped organize Friday’s vigil outside OU’s Cutler Hall, said he has been informed that OU President Roderick McDavis – whose office is in the building – did peruse a Reader’s Forum by Houser about the coal issue that ran recently in The Athens NEWS.
“We have the confirmation now that the president is at least listening to us,” he said.
The vigil was publicized as including both “local citizens” and members of an OU student group called “Beyond Coal,” who were holding the demonstration “to express their mutual concerns about Ohio University's continued reliance on the burning of coal to supply its heating requirements.”
The buildings on OU’s Athens campus are heated by steam from the Lausche plant on South Shafer Street, which has three coal-fired boilers and one natural gas boiler, but burns mostly coal. In 2009, according to Ohio EPA figures, the plant emitted more than 81 tons of carbon monoxide, which raises serious concerns among the Beyond Coal members about OU’s contribution to global climate change.
When The Athens NEWS asked OU in late October about the impact of proposed new U.S. EPA standards for boiler emissions, a university official said OU was “in the process of developing a viable plan” to reach compliance.
“It is our plan to remain in compliance with active emissions regulation at our plant, now and in the future,” promised Michael Gebeke, executive director of facilities management, at the time.
The protesters Friday, however, indicated that they would like to see OU commit publicly to a clearly defined schedule for cleaning up or replacing Lausche.
“I guess our thing is, they have to upgrade the plant, or go to (some other fuel),” said Athens resident Brandon LaBonte, as he held up one post of a banner reading, “Hurts our lungs – harms our planet. No fossil fuels at OU.”
The aim of the protest, LaBonte said, is “just to kind of say, people who live around here, as well as students, want to see OU set a higher standard than just ‘taking care of it.’”
Houser emphasized that the group doesn’t aim to be confrontational, and appreciates the efforts OU is already making to reduce its “carbon footprint,” but wants to send a clear message that there’s support for OU moving away from fossil fuels as briskly as possible.
He said on this issue, the question of what to do with Lausche – already more than a decade beyond its recommended lifespan – is front and center.
“If this university’s really serious about becoming carbon-neutral, they’ve got to deal with that coal plant,” Houser said. “We’re not expecting that plant to be replaced tomorrow, but what the university could do today is commit itself to a strict timeline (for its replacement)… That’s something they could do today.”
In 2003, OU officials investigated options for renovating or replacing the plant. At the time, they hoped to replace Lausche with a high-tech, energy-efficient plant that would have used natural gas derived from coal, and would have provided not only heat, but electricity for the campus.
That project had to be scrapped when OU failed to win a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that would have helped cover its estimated $133 million price tag. Other options discussed at the time included overhauling the plant and fitting it with emission scrubbers, or replacing it with a natural gas plant. Either would have cost about $22 million.