A winding stream to Riverview Energy’s future

By Don Steen, Ferdinand News

If anyone was expecting the fight over Riverview Energy’s proposed coal-to-diesel plant in Dale to subside in 2023, things are already warming up on that front. Opponents of the plant notched a win late last year when the town of Santa Claus declined to pursue an agreement to provide water for the project. However, Riverview Energy came out ahead on the legal front with the coming of the New Year.

First announced in 2018, the coal-to-diesel facility has been a central point of concern for many residents fearing the plant would exacerbate air quality issues in the county. Many others point to the economic potential of the project.

Riverview Energy anticipates using a process of direct-coal hydrogenation to convert 1.6 million 

tons of coal feedstock to produce 4.8 million barrels of low-sulfur diesel fuel, as well as 2.5 million barrels of Naptha. Construction could create more than 2,000 jobs in the region, with more than 200 full-time positions once regular operation begins.

However, opponents of the project fear emissions from the plant would add to southwest Indiana’s air quality issues. The close proximity of the proposed plant to homes and schools in the Dale area is an oft-cited concern, given high rates of cancer, developmental issues and other health problems in the region. Opponents have also targeted the project for failing to show any sign of progress and tying up land. 

After two years in litigation, the Marion County Superior Court ruled December 29 in favor of the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication, affirming the Indiana Department of Environmental  Management’s decision to grant a Title V air permit to Riverview Energy Corp.

In a technical sense, the decision gave a mixed result for the Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life and Valley Watch, the opposition groups leading the legal fight against Riverview Energy. The Court found those groups did successfully show they were adversely affected by the permit and had legal standing to challenge it. However, the Court also placed the burden of proof on those groups to overturn said permit. 

It further found that the OEA “demonstrates that its findings were based upon the kind of evidence that is substantial and reliable.” Essentially, while a door remains open for legal challenges to the project, the burden of proof represents a high bar for opponents. 

“This is a win for the OEA, IDEM, Riverview Energy, the residents of Spencer County and the southwest region of Indiana – and for other industries looking to bring opportunity to Indiana,” said Riverview Energy President Greg Merle. “It’s also a reminder that while it may only take a scintilla of misinformation to generate social-media buzz and community rumor, the courts require something more substantial.”

Opponents of the project were frank in their assessment of the Court’s decision. Several members of the SWICQL said that IDEM has traditionally been more lenient on polluting industries than many other state regulatory agencies. They noted this is in no small part due to the lack of teeth current state law affords regulators, with IDEM mostly operating according to guidelines rather than hard, enforceable limits. 

“The Court’s ruling, and the decision it upheld, threatens to shut the doors to one of the only legal avenues where Hoosiers can defend their rights against improper environmental permits,” said SWICQL President Mary Hess. “Laws must be passed to protect Hoosiers from industries like Riverview, which received a free pass on an air quality permit that exceeds by 13 times the level of cancer risk that IDEM considered acceptable. According to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, under IDEM’s leadership, Indiana ranks 4th worst in the US in toxic emissions per square mile. Indiana’s public health ranking is also consistently in the bottom 25 percent.” 

Proponents of the project highlight the potential impact the plant could have on the local, state and national economy. Recently, Riverview Energy has highlighted the potential for the Dale site to produce hydrogen, a necessary component in the direct-coal hydrogenation process, but also a possible major fuel source in the global transition toward alternative sources. 

“Riverview Energy’s permit enables it to build the two largest hydrogen-energy generating units in the United States,” stated a press release. “The company will be the first in the nation to take noncombusted carbon feedstock mixed with hydrogen to create ultra-low-sulfur diesel that is 15 percent cleaner than anything on the market today. U.S. adversaries China and Russia are already using this technology to give their countries an advantage over other nations in the highly competitive global-energy market.” 

Opponents have expressed skepticism of Riverview Energy’s references to hydrogen energy, even as hydrogen gains momentum as a possible substitute fuel. 

Retired chemical engineer Randy Vaal noted that any hydrogen produced by the proposed plant, at least according to its current plans, would at best, be “blue hydrogen” rather than “green hydrogen.” That is to say, hydrogen produced with natural gas rather than by solar, wind, nuclear or other renewable sources. 

Riverview Energy has tentative plans to be “carbon neutral” by 2050. Merle announced in 2021 that Riverview Energy plans to use diverse energy sources, including renewable power from regional providers, carbon offset options and adopting new technologies. 

However, SWICQL and Valley Watch are increasingly turning their attention to a perceived lack of progress at the proposed construction site. The IDEM Office of Air Quality conducted a site visit on June 10, where staff documented grading for future construction, pouring of a concrete foundation, the beginnings of an access road and other improvements sufficient to satisfy the state’s definition of “beginning construction” by IDEM’s permit deadline. Opponents of the project note that little progress has been made at the site since then, leading them to conclude these efforts are token gestures to draw out the process. They hope to push IDEM to make more direct efforts to verify Riverview Energy’s compliance.

“Riverview is tying up valuable land and threatening harm to health and the environment without any commitment,” said Hess. “Riverview has not bought any land at the site of its proposed refinery; does not have a timeline for constructing its refinery; does not have a water permit; does not have any building permits from the town of Dale for the refinery. Riverview pursued a memorandum of understanding for a water study with the town of Santa Claus only when the state, not Riverview, would pay for the study – and the town of Santa Claus, realizing this, voted against that memorandum of understanding.” 

SWICQL and Valley Watch are still reviewing their options for how best to proceed from a legal standpoint. IDEM has been in contact with Riverview Energy during the first week of the year to confirm progress at the site. However, John Blair of Valley Watch expressed little confidence in IDEM or any state agency taking any action against Riverview Energy, saying environmental enforcement usually has to come from the United States Environmental Protection Agency rather than any state action. This could include taking the matter to federal courts, where Blair felt the issue might be heard with less pro-industry bias than in Indiana. 

“It’s a culture we’re fighting here,” he said. 

As of press time, Riverview Energy had not provided an updated timetable on its construction goals for this year. However, Merle expressed optimism that the project would ultimately come to fruition and potentially grow to include similar facilities across the country.

“Indiana has the opportunity to be a major player in the highly evolving global energy market and in achieving U.S. energy independence,” said Merle. The Riverview Energy plant in Dale, Indiana is expected to create more than 2,000 high-paying jobs in the region, and hundreds of supporting jobs in the area as well.”