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Activism Focuses on Snuffing Out Coal at IU

Last fall, the Sierra Club began pressuring a handful of college campuses to end their use of coal. Indiana University, with its heating Plant, was targeted.

  • Mark Menefee

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    Photo: Andrew Olanoff/ WFIU

    IU Assistant Director of Utilities Mark Menefee manages the heating plant.

  • IU Central Heating Plant

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

    Built in 1955, IU's Central Heating Plant burns roughly 60,000 tons of coal a year.

  • Coal Free IU

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    Photo: Andrew Olanoff/ WFIU

    A speaker at a recent Coal Free IU meeting asks for suggestions from the crowd.

  • Coal Free IU

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    Photo: Andrew Olanoff/ WFIU

    Coal Free IU holds weekly meetings to discuss and plan efforts to remove coal from the school's Bloomington campus.

Part two of a five-part series

PREVIOUSLY: Part I

NEXT: Part III, Part IV and Part V

Last fall, the Sierra Club began pressuring a handful of college campuses to end their use of coal as a heat and power source. Indiana University, with its coal-fueled Central Heating Plant, was one of the schools targeted.

Since then, students on campus have held rallies, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and tried to sway IU administration in face-to-face meetings. While their efforts have yielded few results so far, they say they’re in it for the long haul.

There’s a few spots on IU’s Bloomington campus where you can’t avoid the clog generated by 40-thousand students going to and from class. And Coal Free IU has planted representatives in one of them, clipboards in hand.

“We have an art installation of grave stones. And train carts full of representations of coal with facts and figures about how much we’re burning right here at Indiana University and its impact of public health and the environment,” said Monica Embrey, founder of Coal Free IU.

She’s not a student — she’s a full-time employee of GreenCorps, a non-profit environmental activism group. And she’s working on behalf of the Sierra Club’s campaign against coal on college campuses.

“And we’re gathering signatures on our petition to [IU President Michael McRobbie],” she said.

That campaign is staffed by a large number of volunteers, who Embrey has given talking points.

“We only needed one more! Dang. I really feel like guilt works on most people. Are you recording all of this?” one volunteer said during a recent petition gathering effort.

“It’s on Fee Lane. It powers like three-fourths of the campus,” another volunteer told a signee.

Some of what they say simply isn’t true. Some is.

“Normally I’m against signing something I haven’t read all the way through, but, okay,” said one student who agreed to support Coal Free’s mission.

Debit or Credi-bility

While the group has collected thousands of petition signatures, Coal Free IU President Lauren Kastner says, more than anything, the group needs credibility for IU administrators to consider its ideas.

“Education is one of our top prioities. We don’t want people just signing the petition. We have people say, ‘Wait, what am I signing again?’ And that’s great,” she said. “We want people to think twice.”

To some, the group’s efforts are as welcome as a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. Just ask Mark Menefee. He runs the heating plant where the students have held boisterous rallies.

“I think it is a media stunt to yell ‘dirty coal.’ I think that avoids the issue,” Menefee said.“We’re just wanting to be really careful because we really do like we’re getting attacked in an unfair way.”

Common Ground?

Despite some tension between the group and the university, IU Vice President Tom Morrison, the school’s point-man on the issue, met with students in the group in November. They wanted a public commitment to transition the plant to cleaner fuels. That didn’t happen.

“Their horizon is we want to see action now. We want you to stop burning coal right now. And my reaction is, ‘I don’t disagree with you,’” Morrison said. “I know they want us to flip the switch off on that tomorrow. And I can’t give them that. But I do think we’re working on the same goal,” he said.

Morrison says the students will not see the change they’re asking for within their time at IU. Or in the foreseeable future.

Still, Kastner sits down again with Morrison on March 23. She says her group has already started to change its strategy, admitting students came on too strong by asking the school to eliminate coal altogether.

Kastner says the group will press IU to work toward becoming climate neutral by joining 674 other schools to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

On Monday we’ll take a look around the country to see how other campuses are dealing with calls to end coal on campus. And on Wednesday, we’ll take a peek at IU’s plans to do so, so far.

PREVIOUSLY: Part I

NEXT: Part IIIPart IV and Part V

Daniel Robison

Daniel started as WFIU's Assistant News Director in July 2008. He graduated with a B.A. in history in 2007 and earned an M.A. in journalism two years later. Daniel hosts Ask the Mayor weekly and the occasional Noon Edition. He also hosts Morning Edition on Thursdays, sleepily. Daniel's beats include everything News Director Stan Jastrzebski wants him to cover. And it feels strange to type biography of myself in the third person like this. So that's that.

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