April 19, 2022 – by John Blair, Valley Watch President and webpage editor. John Blair was one of the founding members of Valley Watch, whose purpose is “to protect the public health and environment of the lower Ohio River valley.” This is his perspective on environmental health progress since the first EarthDay in 1970.
April 22 marks the 52nd anniversary of EarthDay. At a ripe young 23, I went to Butler University and watched a film (No Blade of Grass) that forever changed my life. I became an “environmentalist.” My first action was to stop throwing cigarette butts out of my car window.
I gathered as much information as possible about pollution, read The Limits to Growth and celebrated the passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and, in 1976 the passage of the Toxic Substance Control Act. I also ran for Congress in 1976 and two of my main issues were high utility bills and seeking to stop a stupid idea to build another Wabash Canal. I lost the election but won the issue of the Canal with the help of Indiana Senator, Richard Lugar and common sense.
Winning that issue did embolden me and when I heard that the Feds were looking to build a nuclear waste dump in the Hoosier National Forest, I was driven to action, forming a rag tag group called the Nuclear Waste Action Committee. My first contact in that fight was the Evansville Chamber of Commerce, whom I figured would be readily on board since such a facility would not serve us well in attracting any sort of clean new business. They balked and I would soon find that they were not interested in quality of life issues at all, just jobs, often dangerous. NWAC played hardball and kept the nuclear waste site out of Indiana.
Around that same time, a massive buildout of coal fired power plants was taking place in the region as well as a huge Marble Hill nuclear plant that was proposed and being built on our drinking water source, the Ohio River, near Madison. Then, in the late 1970s three giant “synthetic fuel” plants, designed to convert local coal into other forms of coal were proposed just across the River between Owensboro and Henderson in Kentucky.
We were truly under assault from a variety of huge new pollution sources if they were successful.
Then, four things happened. First, I was fortunate to win a Pulitzer Prize for News Photography in 1978. After that, I knew I could go elsewhere and find a good job in my chosen profession, photojournalism. But I chose instead to stay in my adopted home of Evansville and fight as best I could to stop the onslaught of new pollution sources that seemed to be proposed nearly monthly, mostly new coal plants in one form or another.
Together with my friend and colleague. Tom Zeller, a geology instructor at University of Southern Indiana, we went on a massive campaign to alter the region’s future.
Concurrently, we did three things together to accomplish just that. We formed three different groups to fight for public health and the environment. The first was a professional group called Synfuel Inquiry. It consisted of mostly academics in a wide array of sciences, a few medical doctors, and a few like minded regional attorneys. Its purpose was to redefine the meaning of Synfuels and show the world that it was economically dumb and environmentally hazardous to spend huge sums of Federal money that would serve no useful purpose.
Second, we decided to start a monthly newsletter which we quickly turned into a newspaper called the Ohio Valley Environment or affectionately, the OVE. We freely distributed the OVE throughout SW Indiana, Bloomington, Louisville and Madison regions at the tune of 17,000 a month. We presented balanced environmental health news on most pages but had a hard hitting editorial page that was way before its time. Unlike Synfuel Inquiry and Valley Watch which came a bit later, the OVE was a “for profit” venture that was actually a labor of lOVE.
We covered stories on toxic waste like the “Valley of the Drums” in Louisville, really thorough coverage of Marble Hill as well as the developments in synfuels and, of course, the proliferation of coal plants and mining in the tri-state. We also ran exclusive stories and interviews with a variety of national figures and studies that apparently were “not worthy” of conventional news coverage.
Those included interviews with the Chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority, David Freemen, the President of the US Synthetic Fuel Corporation, an upstart funded by $88 billion of Federal (taxpayer) money. And, newsmakers like Ralph Nader, Richard Harris (the first director of the Office of Surface Mining), Joel Deckard, the 8th District Congressman and Ernest Sternglass, one of the principal scientists in the Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons.
Our first expose was about a small socially irresponsible company that operated in Rockport called Barmet. They also had facilities in Livia, KY and Bedford, IN all of which were filthy and dangerous for the people who lived nearby. The plant manager for Rockport was a former Air Force Colonel named John Grunigen. He said something that forever changed the way I would see things.
In my interview with him, I asked him about why he was allowed to operate such a dirty plant without industrial zoning. He said, “Well, young man. Laws are made by the weak to hinder the strong.” I was stunned.
The only thing I had ever heard that came even close to being so anti-democratic was something that a local attorney had said in 1977 as a member of a Chamber committee called the “Task Force For Reasonable Clean Air Standards.” On a local public affairs program addressing the very first health based standards for criteria pollutants like ozone and lead, he seriously said, “The problem with these standards is that they are designed to protect the most sensitive people (meaning those who get sick from dirty air). We will just have to develop some sort of mask for those people to wear.” At the time, there was no viral pandemic that was killing people, he was simply saying in the best “crony capitalist” jargon that economic wealth was more important than public health. And, it is OK to stigmatize some people.
The OVE lasted for three solid years, paid for with affordable advertising and a lot of volunteer effort from writers, artists and distributors but it never really turned a profit. It did have residual impact since it forced the traditional media into covering the topics of environmental health that previously were being ignored or dismissed. That impact lasted at least a decade.
Third, we formed Valley Watch whose purpose was and still is the “protection of public health and the environment of the lower Ohio River Valley.” Unlike the other ventures, Valley Watch was designed to last and be a force for the future in defining the economic course for the region. We would oppose pollution that released toxic chemicals and the facilities that were proposed that would do that.In that effort, we won numerous battles. Barmet was finally forced to close. We beat back all three giant synfuel plants. Marble Hill was forced to shut down before it was completed. A number of coal plants were stopped before they could break ground. Con Agra was stopped from building an ozone producing soybean plant. Yet, another proposal to build a nuclear waste storage site in Kentucky was defeated. Evansville’s own Bristol Myers Squibb was forced to quit using a horrible cancer causing chemical called ethylene oxide to sterilize nipples for their infant formula. Public knowledge about the harmful health impacts of toxic chemicals in the regional environment was heightened.
We played a significant role in the passage and implementation of Indiana’s solid waste laws and rules which went far in making the disposal of regional waste safer for future generations.
In the twenty-first century, along with colleagues, we stopped several proposed coal plants and the stupid Indiana Gasification proposal in Rockport from being built. We also successfully fought a giant polluting fertilizer in Rockport, too.
We didn’t always win. Our first loss had begun construction prior to our existence-the Rockport power plant.
Also, even though we beat back Peabody Energy’s proposal for a massive new coal plant in Muhlenberg County, KY called Thoroughbred, we lost out fight to keep Peabody’s Prairie State plant out of southern Illinois. Now, it is one of the world’s largest CO2 and SO2 emitters.
These battles were long and hard and stressed our entire staff of unpaid volunteers to the limit at times. Marble Hill, Thoroughbred and Indiana Gasification all consumed eight years of our effort. Others, as much as five. But we learned the lesson that if you cannot match money and other resources you MUST rely on perseverance and dedication if you expect to win in the end.
Our most recent calling is another ridiculous project proposed for Dale, IN, a bucolic community in norther Spencer County. In 2010, a company calling itself, Clean Coal Refining Company sought to build a giant plant to convert coal to diesel fuel and naphtha in Vermillion County, north of Terre Haute. At the time, coal was still king in Indiana and Federal dollars were once again flowing to the dirty fuel. The site was the former US Army nerve gas storage site which consumed hundreds of acres on the banks of the Wabash River.
Vermillion County had been given the land by the Army once the nerve gas was removed and presumably destroyed and they developed a “Redevelopment Commission” to market a large new industrial site. Clean Coal Refining jumped at the chance to get a site, secure and fairly isolated, to build their experimental plant they said would cost $2.5 Billion and create 200 permanent jobs.
The Commission, recently named, Vermillion Rise jumped at the chance to lease 1,500 acres to Clean Coal Refining and gave them three year options which allowed time to design, secure financing, government loan guarantees and find a market for their products. At the end of the three year options, nothing had happened so the Commission gave them an additional three year option. Valley Watch followed their lack of progress but did not see it as much of a threat since nothing was happening.
Sometime in the middle of the last decade, Vermillion Rise found that the name Clean Coal Refining was a turn-off for other prospects who might wish to locate there. A brand change was required. Riverview Energy arose as a euphemism since it sat on the banks of the Wabash River. Like lipstick on a hog, that was not enough to make the plant viable. By 2016, and still no progress for Riverview, Vermillion said “enough” and told Riverview to pack their bags because the options would not be renewed.