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Controversial coal-to-diesel plant wants more time to build. Activists want state to revisit its per

A company hoping to build a controversial coal-to-diesel plant in southern Indiana has asked for more time before starting construction. Residents and activists who oppose the plant hope the state will look closely at the company’s plan — and allow the public to comment on them — before approving the extension.

Riverview Energy has requested an 18-month extension to find a contractor for the project in Dale.

In a letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), it said the pandemic and legal action from local groups Valley Watch and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life have also impacted its plans.

Mary Hess is the president of Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life. She said since Riverview’s permit was approved three years ago, a lot has changed — better pollution control technology has come out and two new industrial polluters started operating in the area.

Activists hope the state will use this opportunity to make the plant safer.

“Will they just go ahead and rubber stamp it and send it on?” Hess said.

READ MORE: Court rules in favor of coal-to-diesel plant in air permit challenge

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The coal-to-diesel plant is expected to increase the risk of cancer in the area by about 13 cases per 1 million people. IDEM considered anything above 1 in 1 million a “level of concern” in 2018.

But the agency’s new policies for air quality modeling don’t mention that standard or promise to do more analysis when industrial facilities exceed it.

Instead, it mentions only the much lower federal standard for cancer risks from air pollution — which is 100 in 1 million. This standard is also used to look at the air pollution in an entire area — not just a single industrial plant.

Lauren Piette is an associate attorney with Earthjustice — which is representing Valley Watch and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life in the litigation. She said that could mean Indiana is allowing a cancer risk 100 times higher than before.

Piette said this is important because the cancer risk policy applies not only to this project, but every industrial facility looking to get an air permit in the state.

“So it has real impact implications for all Hoosiers and, because of that, we think it's essential for IDEM to rescind its new policy immediately," Piette said.

At the very least, Piette said, the public should be allowed to weigh in on it.

In a statement, Riverview Energy President Greg Merle said the company has experienced delays due to shutdowns, travel changes and supply chain issues caused COVID-19 as well as impacts to energy use due to the war in Ukraine. But Merle said, for Riverview, there's a silver lining.

"[O]ur project has now become all the more strategic and essential to American energy security. This has brought some of the world’s largest and brightest companies to Riverview’s table as we finalize our construction plans," Merle said in a statement. "This additional time over the past few months has also allowed us to explore how quickly we can implement our carbon-neutral plan before 2050."

IDEM refused to make anyone available for an interview.

This story has been updated.

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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