Guest Columnist

UI's dirty coal semester

Bridge inspectors work under the Burlington Street bridge over the Iowa River in Iowa City on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.  (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Bridge inspectors work under the Burlington Street bridge over the Iowa River in Iowa City on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The view from the Burlington Street bridge in Iowa City is a symbolic measure of climate inaction today.

The University of Iowa might be the only campus in the country that has spent thousands of dollars on stationary tables, benches and umbrellas overlooking a toxic coal-fired power plant spewing discharges into the Iowa River, fine particulates into the air, and carbon emissions destabilizing our future.

Even more troubling: The Campus Health and Recreation Center overlooks the coal-fired power plant, as well as a flurry of new condos, apartments and a hotel, despite reams of studies that show thousands of people die annually from heart and respiratory diseases related to coal-fired pollution.

In every city in the US, people move away from coal-fired plants. Chicago shut down its coal-fired relics years ago, as have universities across the country. In its race to cash in on the Riverfront Crossings District rebuilding after extreme weather and flooding, Iowa City is doing the opposite.

Did the Iowa City Council include the external health costs of coal pollution in the construction permits? Has the city council set any bold mandates for energy efficiency or renewable energy?

Five years ago, I wrote an op-ed on Iowa City’s dilemma: It couldn’t claim to be a “blue zone” if it was a “coal zone.”

Iowa City quietly dropped out of the Blue Zone health campaign. It still burns coal. The city’s long overdue climate plan (less ambitious than Dubuque and other towns), is already outdated before it will be released, given recent studies.

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The United Nations warned of this “ambition gap” in 2016, concluding in the annual UNEP report that we only had three years to carry out still insufficient Paris Climate Accord pledges, in order to avoid catastrophic tragedy.

In 2017 alone, our nation spent over $300 billion on extreme climate disasters.

Let’s put this “ambition gap” in perspective: UI Athletics lost millions of dollars during 2015-16, despite its $113 million budget and revenues. Last year it recorded a surplus for the first time since 2013. UI pays $5 million to the head football coach; it has launched a $89 million campaign for football stadium renovations. This is ambitious.

Aside from some energy efficiency projects, similar ambition doesn’t exist for climate action. For example, UI’s “sustainability” theme semester this spring highlights 96 courses.

In comparison, Colorado State University, among scores of other schools, regularly offers over 960 courses related to sustainability. Schools like Stanford have invested hundreds of millions into solar and renewable energy; the University of California system has been divesting in fossil fuel investments.

President Bruce Harreld’s announcement last year that UI would stop burning coal in 2025 was more of an Orwellian marketing scheme than a laudable call for clean energy: He boldly declared UI would burn coal for eight more years. (He didn’t mention that UI also burns another fossil fuel, natural gas from devastating fracking operations, for 40 percent of its boiler needs, and relies on electricity from a grid that still depends mostly on coal.)

Eight more years of coal, according to Iowa’s famous climatologist James Hansen, would be disastrous. Hansen recently declared “we are entering a period of consequences and are in danger of being too late.”

The UI biomass program is admirable, but it still lacks the infrastructure — including thousands of needed truckloads on city streets — to significantly help in a timely manner.

Here’s the point: Coal kills. Three coal miners still die daily from black lung disease; coal ash, including that from our UI plant, is carcinogenic; strip mining and deadly coal slurry impoundments have left farm and mining communities uninhabitable; air pollution from coal-fired plants are connected to high rates of asthma and heart disease.

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As the main contributor to climate change, coal-fired plants need to be shut down as soon as possible — not when it’s convenient. In truth, UI could have transitioned off fossil fuels years ago — when massive FEMA funds were available after the 2008 flood — like Ball State University in Indiana, which now powers its boilers with geothermal energy. Many schools, like Ohio State, are now moving to carbon neutral plans.

That should be UI’s and Iowa City’s theme this semester: Getting off coal, and acting responsibly on climate action now — not in eight years.

• Jeff Biggers of Iowa City is the author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.”

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