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Energy company fights to build America's first coal-to-diesel plant

By Jessie Higgins
1/5
Energy company fights to build America's first coal-to-diesel plant
A "Friends of Coal" yard sign is displayed along the main street of Dale, Ind. Other residents on the street display signs protesting the proposed coal-to-diesel plant that Riverview Energy plans to build in this town. Photo by Jessie Higgins/UPI

DALE, Ind., July 27 (UPI) -- An American energy company plans to build a new kind of coal facility in Indiana that would use a little-known technology to convert coal to diesel fuel.

The facility, which would be the first of its kind in the United States, has ignited fierce debate.

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For those who work in the declining coal industry, the proposed plant is a beacon of hope. But others fear it will bring yet more pollution and safety risks to a region that is one of the most polluted in the nation.

Nowhere is this debate more evident than in Dale, Ind., where the facility would be built. Along Dale's main street, dozens of home and business owners have lined their yards with signs -- some protesting the facility and others supporting coal.

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"I'm scared of what the health effects will be," said Mary Hess, a Dale resident who is fighting to stop the proposed plant. "They're going to build this thing right in our town."

Many in the rural town of 1,500 people share Hess' view. But Riverview Energy, the company proposing to build the plant, says the fears are unfounded. This facility will one of the "cleanest" coal plants in the country, said Riverview President Greg Merle.

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"It's worth noting that our emissions will be significantly below [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations," Merle said.

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Besides being a "clean coal," he said the economic benefit the $2.5 billion project would bring to the region -- and the entire nation -- will be immense. Merle estimates the plant will employ more than 2,000 people during construction, and create more than 250 permanent jobs on site. Local coal-mining jobs will also increase as mines step up work to feed the plant.

For local businesses and families whose incomes depend on coal, this is a big win. Coal-related jobs are quickly disappearing in the Midwest as coal-fired power plants are shut down at record speeds, said Bruce Stevens, the president of the Indiana Coal Council.

"We've lost 4 million tons per year of Indiana coal from retired power plants," Stevens said. "This [coal-to-diesel] plant will replace about half of that. We're very hopeful this plant becomes a reality because it will be very helpful to communities in which miners have lost work."

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It's not just miners who are losing work as the coal industry declines. Local construction workers who've made a career of building and maintaining coal facilities are also suffering.

"We need this for our families, for our futures and for our retirement packages," said Timothy Brunfield, a dispatcher for Boilermakers Local 374, a union that represents skilled construction workers. "This is not just a new plant, it's a new industry."

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But to residents like Hess, the potential economic benefit this 550-acre facility could bring does little to offset its potential harm.

"Coal is dying," Hess said. "And I do feel for those who will lose their jobs. But this isn't about jobs, this is about our health."

Because there are no other facilities like this in the United States, there are few ways to research the how much pollution such a site would produce, Hess said.

According to Riverview Energy, there are three coal-to-diesel plants operating worldwide. Two are in China, and the third is in Russia. Merle visited one of the Chinese plants and said it was safe and effective.

The process of converting coal to diesel has existed for almost a century, but it was only recently made commercially available, Merle said.

To convert the coal to liquid fuel, the coal is pulverized into dust, then mixed with a solvent to make a slurry, Merle said. The slurry is sealed into a pressurized container, superheated and infused with hydrogen. In the end, the mixture separates into three products: diesel fuel, Naptha, a product used to make plastic, and sulfur, which is used for fertilizer, Merle said.

He hopes that this will be the first of many coal-to-diesel plants built in the United States.

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"The point of this project is not to build one plant," he said, "it's to create a new industry in our country."

He acknowledges that is a long way off.

Riverview Energy is still in the permitting process for the Dale plant. Merle applied for an air quality permit with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in January. The permit is under review. It is the first of several permits the company will need before construction can begin.

The proposed plant will likely continue to face fierce resistance from the community, and national environmental groups, as the process continues.

"This plant has woken me up," Hess said, speaking from her kitchen table this week. "This has been my home for decades. My friends are here, I love it here. But I'll be able to see this thing from my kitchen window."

She glanced out that window, at that moment a picturesque view of green fields spotted with leafy trees.

"Every morning we wake up and we take this planet for granted," she said. "We take for granted that it will be here. I've taken the beauty of this place for granted, and now I'm afraid that one day I will wake up and it will be gone."

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