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Students vow to press Iowa universities on coal ash disposal
Students at Iowa’s state universities say getting their schools to change their coal ash disposal methods will be a priority during the coming school year, and a new organization could make that easier.
The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are among the state’s biggest producers of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion. All three schools dispose of their ash in an unlined, unmonitored former quarry in Waterloo that received a waiver from the state in 2002 allowing it to use the ash as fill in its reclamation process.
Because the site is unmonitored, its potential risks to public health are unknown. State regulators say they are waiting for the federal government to issue new rules governing coal ash disposal, despite admitting to The Iowa Independent that contamination could already be taking place. Environmentalists point to studies released this spring showing a much higher risk of toxins leaching into groundwater supplies than previously thought. They believe the state should take action in order to protect its citizens from any potential health risk.
Early this summer, all three of Iowa’s public universities vowed to investigate any possible health risks that could result from the disposal of their coal ash at the Waterloo quarry. In the end, the schools decided they would not alter their methods.
Holly Jones, a University of Iowa student and an organizer with the Sierra Club Student Coalition, said many students are not aware that this is happening at their school. Most don’t even know there is a coal plant sitting all three campuses.
“It’s so ironic that here we are attending a university that is supposed to be fostering learning and growth, and right on campus we have a coal plant that is detrimental to the student body’s health,” she said.
To remedy that, Jones said student organizers plan to work to raise student awareness of the issue and force the school’s administration to alter its coal ash disposal methods.
“The university can do better, and we have to challenge them to do so,” she said.
Pantelis Korovilas, an Iowa State University student who has been active in the environmental movement, said student organizations know the issue of coal ash well. While groups have previously only worked on their specific campus, coal ash could become one of the first issues tackled by a new statewide student organization formed in the spring.
Following the Iowa Earth Summit held at Drake University on March 28, student environmentalists formed the Iowa Sustainability Alliance, Iowa’s first statewide student environmental effort.
“This issue is bigger than just one campus,” Korovilas said. “So, the fact that a state network is getting underway right now, this is the perfect opportunity to tie something in across campuses and work on something at a statewide level.”
Initial efforts will focus on educating the student body on the issue and making them aware that, despite what each of the universities say about their commitment to the environment, the reality is they are some of the biggest polluters in the state, Jones said.
“The universities are always talking about sustainability and renewable energy,” she said. “But then you hear that how they dispose of coal ash doesn’t seem to be much of an issue to them, and that is really discouraging. This is something in the coming year that students will rally around.”
In addition to pushing each school’s administration, Korovilas said students might speak to the Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s public universities. When contacted to discuss the coal ash issue, Sheila Doyle, the board’s spokeswoman, said it “would not be appropriate to comment at this time.”
Doyle did say that to the best of her knowledge, the universities’ method of coal ash disposal has never been brought before the board.
Coal ash, which contains high levels of toxins like arsenic, mercury and boron, is usually disposed of in dump sites mandated to follow strict landfill standards, including liners, groundwater monitoring and financial assurances that the site owner can clean up any contamination. The Waterloo quarry used by the universities, along with three other sites around the state, received waivers from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources allowing them to act as coal ash dumps without following those regulations.
Last year, the University of Iowa helped derail tougher regulations on coal ash, writing a letter to the DNR claiming that no evidence exists that “the current practice causes harm to human health or the environment.”
The main reason no evidence of contamination in Iowa exists is because there has been no monitoring for such contamination.
For their part, Jones said students would make coal ash disposal a priority in the fall, and push for the universities, which are mandated to serve the public, to stop engaging in a potentially dangerous practice.
“Iowa is such an amazing state as far as looking at quality of life for our citizens, so to think that something as serious as this is going on, especially at public universities, is strange,” she said. “It is definitely a surprise to me that this is something that has gone unnoticed for so long and has been swept under the rug like this.”