Dale, Indiana: A Tiny Town Fights a Massive Coal-to-Diesel Refinery

Dale, a town in Spencer County, southwest Indiana, is under siege. Set in farming country, with a population of 1,593 that’s 84.6% white and an annual median income of $34,000, Dale is a close-knit, peaceful community. Riverview Energy Corp., based in Delaware, wants to build a $2.5 billion coal-to-diesel refinery in Dale on 512 acres of what is today a huge cornfield. The proposed refinery would be a massive plant with smokestacks belching toxic air pollution and pumping out greenhouse gases and the associated poisonous chemical odors and noise of heavy industry. Resistance to the project is mounting.


With its rolling hills dotted with woods, southwest Indiana is a tourist destination. Among its attractions are the Hoosier National Forest and its lakes, Holiday World, Lincoln State Park, Lincoln Boyhood National Monument, Marengo Cave, Patoka Lake, Wyandotte Caves, the Lincoln Amphitheater, the Ohio River front, two historic monasteries in Ferdinand and St. Meinrad, the town of Santa Claus and eight wineries.

But Indiana is ranked sixth most toxic of the 50 states. According to the Sierra Club, Indiana releases more greenhouse gases, the main driver of global climate breakdown, than 187 countries do. Indiana has five super polluters. Super polluters is an academic term for both the top 100 releasers of greenhouse gases and top 100 releasers of toxic air pollutants. Twenty-two facilities nationwide meet the criteria for being top releasers of both pollution and greenhouse gases, and four of them are in coal country in southwest Indiana. All are coal-fired power plants. Indiana also has more coal ash lagoons than any other state. Those lagoons are pits adjacent to coal plants, usually unlined and filled with water and the toxic waste products from burning coal, which include lead, mercury, arsenic and boron, causing cancer and damaging organs. The chemicals contaminate groundwater.

Spencer County ranks 23rd among the nation’s 3,000 counties, parishes and reservations in the release of toxic substances into the air. Rockport, also in southwest Indiana, is ranked the 18th city in the U.S. for air pollution.

The Refinery

The refinery would be less than a mile from Dale’s town center, six miles downwind from the town of Ferdinand and five from the town of Santa Claus. An elementary school, nursing home, organic farm and animal hospital are within a mile of the site. A wholesale food distributor is located across the railroad tracks from the property line, and people live 60 yards from the line.

The site of the proposed refinery is owned privately and was originally in Spencer County and zoned for agricultural use. Last year Dale officials quietly annexed the acreage from the county. The town’s zoning board, an advisory agency, rezoned the site industrial and voted 4-3 for the refinery. The town council, a governing body, voted 5-0 for the facility. It was a deal cooked up on the sly by Riverview Energy, town officials and the local economic development corporation, with the blessing of Indiana’s governor. When rumors of the proposed refinery first reached Dale residents and they asked public officials about it, the officials’ answers were always the same: they denied any knowledge of the project. When a local resident asked about the hush-hush manner in which the project was moving forward, a public official told her they were acting quietly to avoid public opposition.

In this country, ordinarily diesel fuel is refined directly from crude oil at a petroleum refinery. Coal-to-diesel plants like the one Riverview Energy Corp. is proposing for Dale exist nowhere in the United States or the rest of the western hemisphere, though there is one such plant each in China and Russia. The technology of converting coal into a liquid fuel was pioneered in Nazi Germany in World War II when that country was short on diesel fuel but coal was plentiful. This type of refinery was popular in apartheid South Africa for the same reasons. Greg Merle, president of Riverview Energy, wants to market the technology widely and sees the Dale plant as only the first of many in the United States. He claims that such plants will revitalize the nation’s fading coal industry—this at a time when it’s critical to leave fossil fuels in the ground and immediately begin transitioning to renewable energy to mitigate global climate breakdown.

The plant would use a process called hydrogenation to convert coal into ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. Heat and pressure would liquefy pulverized coal, with hydrogen added to create the fuel. The plant would process 1.6 million tons of coal annually, or 100 rail cars of coal each day. Every year the process would produce an estimated 4.8 million barrels of diesel fuel and 2.5 barrels of naphtha, used to make gasoline and plastics. As to toxic air pollution, the facility would have annual emission rates of 225 tons of carbon monoxide and 120 tons of sulfur dioxide. Each year it would emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global climate breakdown.

The coal-to-diesel process would require water, and Riverview Energy plans to pump 1.8 million gallons of it each day from an aquifer of the Ohio River. A 20-mile pipe would transport the water to the plant from the aquifer, and another pipe of equal length would bring the wastewater, supposedly treated, back to the aquifer to be dumped. Riverview Energy hasn’t specified how it would extract the contaminants from the wastewater or how it would dispose of them. The company isn’t offering to pay for the pipes; presumably the Indiana taxpayers would foot the bill.

For a retired chemical engineer who has examined Riverview’s air permit application in detail and lives in Santa Claus, converting coal into diesel fuel makes no sense. He points out the outlook for coal and oil is bleak. As oil prices drop, the plant would become less economical. The refinery would be quite simply an anachronism.

Riverview Energy has no plans to mitigate the 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide it would emit. The plant would also release hydrogen sulfide, a gas highly toxic to humans at even low levels.

As is nearly always the case with proposed polluting facilities, Riverview Energy is promising to bring Dale jobs—2,000 construction and 225 permanent jobs. However, Dale has an unemployment rate of only 2.6%, with “now hiring” signs common in the windows of local industries and retailers.

The Resistance

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) began examining Riverview’s air permit application in January and is expected to release its decision any day. By law, IDEM is required to give the public 30 days to comment after the results of its analysis are made public and then to hold a public hearing.

Concerned residents of Dale came together in April to start a grassroots organization, Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, to fight the plant. For Mary Hess, a retired postal worker and president of the organization, the struggle is about saving lives now and in the future.

Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life held two public forums on the plant, one in May and the second in June. One of the speakers at both forums was Erin Marchand, M.D., a board-certified family physician and resident of Santa Claus. She studied the air pollution permit application in depth and points out that the plant would be another super polluter, with concomitant health effects. The plant would release 139 tons per year of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs combine with nitrous oxide, also to be released by the plant, to form ozone, or smog. Spencer County has no monitor to measure ozone, but the surrounding counties do and are known to have ozone problems.

Dr. Marchand points out that the plant would release tons of particulate matter. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, particulate matter causes preterm birth and bladder cancer and slows lung development in children. According to Dr. Marchand, exposure to ozone and particulate matter results in visits to hospital emergency rooms for allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attack, angina, atrial fibrillation and premature death. Pollution, she says, causes death in both the long term and short term. Air pollution causes cancer, preterm birth, infant mortality, deficits in lung development, heart attack, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, shortened life span, cognitive deficits and dementia. The plant would release known carcinogens, including benzene, which is linked to anemia, leukemia, and liver and bone marrow cancer. People in Dale would also be at risk from pollution in the water and soil.

The obstacles to stopping the refinery are formidable, seemingly insurmountable. No one expects any help from IDEM; it almost always sides with industry in struggles over corporate pollution. The Indiana Department of Health and Indiana Medical Association are silent on the issue. The Environmental Protection Agency, which has to weigh in on the project, has a history of siding with the industries it’s tasked with regulating and has proven to be no friend of public health or the environment.

Polluting facilities like the coal-to-diesel refinery are usually sited in poor communities and communities of color, with little political clout. Riverview Energy seems to think that a bunch of Hoosier hicks wouldn’t have the wherewithal to oppose its plan to place a refinery in their midst, but the corporation underestimated the solidarity among rural southwest Indiana residents.

What the resistance to the refinery has is collective people power. The strength of the resistance lies in the fact that the Dale residents opposing the plant are not doing so in isolation. The best thing going for them is their connectedness to others in the region. People in southwest Indiana have come together to create a network, a true coalition of disparate groups from different locations in the same region. The towns around Dale, accurately perceiving that the refinery would adversely affect all of them, are rallying around Dale. Some of those towns, such as Jasper, have had their own struggles against polluting facilities (in Jasper’s case, a biomass incinerator). Grassroots environmentalists in Ferdinand, six miles downwind from Dale, and Santa Claus are involved in fighting the plant, as is Valley Watch in Evansville. A local winery donated its space for a fundraiser. Project ACORN, a grassroots environmental group in Ferdinand, sponsored the June public forum and benefit concert.

Dale opponents of the coal-to-diesel refinery and their allies are doing all in their power to raise awareness—canvassing door to door; creating a presence at local fall and folk festivals and county fairs; passing out yard signs, bumper stickers, petitions and fliers; creating a Web site (noc2d.com) and Facebook page; putting up a billboard; deluging the local newspapers with letters to the editor. And talking to everyone they encounter. Their immediate goal is to pack the IDEM hearing on the air permit application and, ultimately, to stop the plant. As one opponent of the refinery put it, “We’re fighting an uphill battle but making sure our voices are heard.”