The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Student group demands information on Abbott power plant disposal habits

Students for Environmental Concerns, or SECS, is continuing its investigation of the disposal methods of coal ash by Abbott Power Plant, the University-owned power plant that heats many campus buildings.

The investigation, which began in May 2010, came as a result of SECS’s concern over possible health hazards resulting from coal ash disposal.

SECS, a Registered Student Organization, filed its first FOIA request with the Office for University Relations in May, after which it received 6,570 documents, according to University Spokesman Tom Hardy. Some of these documents had redactions — or blacked out sections — omitting the information regarding Coal Sales Inc., a private company that the University contracted to dispose of its coal ash.

“If a vendor believes that there is proprietary trade secret information within the documents, they can ask that information be redacted so that they’re not put at a competitive disadvantage,” Hardy said.

SECS filed a second request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, in November 2010, after which it received 43 documents with the same redactions. Hardy said the redactions come as a result of paragraph G of the FOIA exemptions, which states:

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    “Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person or business where the trade secrets or commercial or financial information are furnished under a claim that they are propriety, privileged or confidential, and that disclosure of the trade secrets or commercial or financial information would cause competitive harm to the person or business, and only insofar as the claim directly applies to the records requested.”

    In other words, the release of certain types of information that may put a business in a competitive disadvantage may be withheld, according to the FOIA exemption.

    Kevin Wolz, junior in LAS and SECS member, has spearheaded the SECS investigation and said most people do not know about the hazards of coal ash disposal.

    “Most people are aware of the energy production end of coal, but less people know about its disposal,” Wolz said. “We want to know where it’s being dumped, because it’s a toxic substance, and there are not many regulations on it.”

    Wolz said if coal is dumped into ponds and natural areas, groundwater could be polluted, which could ultimately contaminate the drinking water of many surrounding communities.

    However, Judy Lateer, communications specialist of Facilities and Services, said Abbott Power Plant has conformed to Environmental Protection Agency standards.

    “We’re not trying to hide anything, we’re trying to be as open as possible,” she said.

    Abbott Power Plant heats most campus buildings in the form of steam by burning coal. During the fiscal year of 2009, the plant burned 94,000 tons of coal, although the Urbana campus has planned to gradually move away from coal-generated energy in its Climate Action Plan, which aims for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

    SECS has submitted its investigation to the Illinois Attorney General’s office but has yet to hear a response.

    Amy Allen, junior in Engineering and president of SECS, said because Abbott Power Plant is state-funded, SECS believes the contents of the contract between the University and Coal Sales Inc. should be public information.

    “It’s part of their contract, a contract made using public funds,” Allen said. “To us that should be public information.”

    More to Discover