Photo Caption: Coal piled under a protective roof outside Ohio University’s Lausche Heating Plant.
Representatives from the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and OU Beyond Coal were expected to hold a closed meeting with administrators on OU’s main campus to discuss the future of Lausche.
In a joint letter sent to OU President Roderick McDavis on Oct. 18, the groups claimed that Lausche is violating the Clean Air Act’s regulations on hazardous air pollutants.
“Failure to remedy these ongoing violations of the Act,” the letter stated, “could subject the university to a government- or citizen-initiated Clean Air Act enforcement action, which could subject the university to civil penalties and require the school to undertake the installation of costly pollution controls.”.
Stephen Golding, OU vice president of finance and administration, responded to the letter Dec. 20. In university emails obtained by College Green Magazine, Golding said OU strives to comply with state and federal emissions standards. OU officials denied that Lausche, located on Factory Street, is in violation of the act.
“Ohio University does not believe it is out of compliance with the Federal or State Clean Air Act, and in fact our reports to the Ohio EPA are all well within compliance,” OU media specialist Jennifer Krisch said in a written statement.
Golding and Harry Wyatt, OU associate vice president of Facilities, declined to comment for this article.
Dawn Weiser, Golding’s assistant, planned the meeting. Neither she nor the university public information office disclosed the event’s exact time or place. The meeting will be held sometime this afternoon (Monday), Weiser said, and won’t be open to the media or public.
The Sierra Club and NRDC base their claims on their own legal interpretation of Lausche’s emissions records. After reviewing the records for the past several years, the NRDC concluded that the facility has several violations. That interpretation was the basis for the initial letter to McDavis, said Nachy Kanfer, Midwest representative for the Sierra Club.
Although lawyers from both sides are expected to be present at today’s meeting, neither party has taken legal action. Kanfer said the environmental groups hope to avoid taking OU to court.
“There is no lawsuit, and we hope there never will be one,” Kanfer said. “We have merely informed the university of the liabilities they have incurred.”
As of now, neither the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency nor the U.S. EPA is involved. Kanfer said the federal EPA could disagree with the groups’ interpretation of the law.
The agency has been under serious pressure from Republicans in Congress to back off aggressive enforcement of regulations affecting business, including those affecting coal-fired power plants.
The Clean Air Act calls for older facilities to lower emissions standards.
The U.S. EPA allows coal plants built before 1977 to emit substantially more than plants built after that time. If a plant is renovated, it is considered a new facility and must comply with tighter standards.
While Lausche would usually be exempt from strict emissions standards because of its age, the 44-year-old heating plant’s boilers underwent substantial modifications in 2000. Those modifications are the focus of the controversy, said NRDC senior attorney Shannon Fisk. The NRDC and Sierra Club consider the improvements major enough to require new standards and pollution controls for the plant.
“There’s strong evidence that Ohio University’s heating plant has been modified,” Fisk said. “If they want to keep running a dirty coal plant, they must install controls.”
According to emissions records obtained by College Green Magazine, Lausche has been emitting thousands of tons of chemicals and pollutants.
In 2009, the plant emitted 1,338 tons of sulfur dioxide, the key compound in acid rain, according to OU’s 2009 emissions fees report. The plant also released 81 tons of carbon monoxide, 18 tons of hydrochloric acid and 420 pounds of ammonia, according to the 2009 emissions inventory. Lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, mercury and other substances were released in smaller amounts.
“They are emitting these levels of pollution because they do not have modern pollution controls on the building,” Fisk said.
The Ohio EPA fined OU $67,216 for its 2009 emissions. The university is allowed to emit certain amounts of pollutants as long as it pays the necessary fees.
Fisk and Kanfer are planning to represent their respective organizations at the meeting. While OU officials have not said exactly who will represent the university, Golding wrote in his Dec. 20 letter that he will attend the meeting with OU Associate Director of Legal Affairs Nicolette Dioguardi and its private counsel David Northrop of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, a business law firm that practices energy and environmental law.
OU Beyond Coal lead organizer Badger Johnson said he will also attend the meeting with three members of his organization. Johnson was listed as a co-signer for the initial letter to McDavis. Kanfer said it was the student-run Beyond Coal chapter at OU that asked the Sierra Club to look into Lausche.
Fisk said he hopes to persuade OU to give up burning coal altogether. Tougher emissions regulations will soon go into effect, Fisk noted, making any attempt by OU to keep burning coal costly and unsustainable.
Several U.S. colleges and universities including Cornell, Case Western, Penn State and Ball State have looked into retiring their coal burning plants. Some have already moved on to cleaner heating sources such as geothermal or natural gas.
“We believe that… the most sensible action would be to shut down the coal boilers and install something cleaner,” Fisk said.
Lausche is near the end of its lifespan. Former OU Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus said in a Sept. 25 College Green Magazine report that the plant has 15 years at most before it must be retired.
Fisk, Kanfer and Johnson all said they have high hopes for the meeting.
“There’s definitely room to be optimistic,” Johnson said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
Johnson said that if the university is willing to work with the students and the students are actively participating, then the “possibilities are endless.”
– College Green News Editor Lucas Bechtol contributed to this report