WASHINGTON — College environmental activists met Thursday with Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to tell her what they're doing at their schools to try to shut down campus coal-fired heating plants.
"It's so important that your voices are heard, that campuses that are supposed to be teaching people aren't meanwhile polluting the surrounding community with mercury and costing the children a few IQ points because of the need to generate power. It's simply not fair," Jackson said.
The three dozen student activists from coal-consuming states such as Georgia, Kentucky and Indiana included leaders of Sierra Club campus groups that have been pushing to switch from coal to cleaner forms of energy.
"Make sure we don't lose what we have already in trying to keep stretching forward," Jackson told them. "Because it would be tragic if we take one step forward and then we end up taking five or six steps back."
Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, have held 168 roll-call votes so far this year on measures that would reduce the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, waste-disposal laws and other national laws.
"None of them are safe right now," Jackson said of those environmental-protection statutes. "It was my generation and a generation before who advocated in the '60s until 1970, and finally they created the EPA in 1970. You would think all that's behind us? We're talking about losing all that."
Students Lauren Kastner of Indiana University and Patrick Johnson of the University of Kentucky told Jackson how they were trying to get their schools to look into the possibility of geothermal power, a switch that Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., is making now.
"In Indiana we get more than 90 percent of our electricity from coal. This means that fish in our lakes and streams are polluted with mercury and other pollutants from coal ash and combustion," Kastner said.
Johnson said he faced a lot of opposition on campus in Kentucky, a leading coal-producing state. He said the school's two coal plants, both around 50 years old, were close to the university's two hospitals and classrooms. "It's a serious public health issue," he said.
Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club said the students were learning how the energy systems on their campuses worked, talking to school leaders and learning how to organize. There are about 60 schools with central coal-fired heating and cooling plants, and so far 17 of them have agreed to phase out coal, she said.
The environmental group started to encourage student activists to focus on campus coal two years ago, when legislation to limit greenhouse gases died in Congress.
"They're showing that even if there's no leadership in Washington, they can get things done on the campuses," Hitt said. "It also builds a sophisticated generation of new energy leaders."
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