Open letter to UI President Bruce Harreld: End coal burning at the UI power plant immediately

Climate strikers demonstrate on Riverside Drive in Iowa City against the burning of coal on the University of Iowa campus. Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. — courtesy of the Student Climate Strike

We are writing to you as concerned high school climate strikers, University of Iowa students, alumni, staff and Iowa City and area residents.

Last week, the University of California joined 7,000 other colleges and universities in committing to climate emergency plans. These institutions plan to reach carbon-neutral status by 2025. University of California President Janet Napolitano recognized “the need for a drastic societal shift to combat the growing threat of climate change.”

In 2025, the UI will still be winding down its antiquated coal-burning operations at the power plan. The UI’s 2020 sustainability goals released in 2008 are obsolete.

This week, as you know, world leaders are gathering in New York City at the U.N. Climate Summit to address the reality of our world’s climate emergency. Facing dwindling options, as UN chief Antonio Guterres noted, “we are losing that race.”

That climate emergency has already reached the front doors of your students and all Iowans. Last week, for example, western Iowa faced its third round of historic flooding in the last six months. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions increased by three percent in Iowa.

This climate emergency also defines the future of all of your students. Earlier this summer, the UI student government joined other Big Ten schools in declaring a climate emergency. Now, they need you to make good on that promise.

In 2017, you called sustainability “the most important issue of the 21st century.”

This summer, the Iowa City Council and the Iowa City school board have stepped up to the challenge and passed climate resolutions, calling on all city operations to fall in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and reach zero emissions by 2050.

In order to achieve these goals, we need the University of Iowa to unite with our town and revamp its outdated sustainability practices and goals, especially in regards to the nearly century-old coal-burning and natural gas-burning power plant located in the heart of our town and on our Iowa River.

In a nutshell: Coal burning is the main contributor to CO2 emissions; coal burning results in thousands of respiratory and heart ailments and deaths across the country; coal ash, including the UI residue dumped in Waterloo, results in increasing levels of cancer; coal mining still results in massive numbers of black lung disease for miners and toxic coal slurry discharges for local populations.

While the UI has pursued energy efficiency measures and the burning of biomass to offset its coal consumption — even as many experts view the burning of any wood and waste materials as a health hazard — the truth is that the UI power plant has doubled its use of another fossil fuel, natural gas, which has resulted in devastating fracking operations in our region, and produces catastrophic methane emissions.

As residents who must bear the burden of your fossil fuel-based operations in the heart of our city, it also concerns us that the university plans to sell the power plant to a private entity, with a 50-year lease that will impact the health and social well-being of our community, and our children’s future, without the input and agreement of city officials and community groups.

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Bottom line: Aiming for 40 percent renewable energy sources is simply not enough in an age of unfolding climate crises, especially when other universities are committing to 100 percent renewable energy sources. Overlooking the extraordinary movements on other campuses across the country for carbon neutral operations — including local food, zero waste and transportation — is no longer acceptable. The spraying of toxic pesticides, as well, is irresponsible.

It’s time for you, President Harreld, and the University of Iowa to join Iowa City as a partner, commit to the IPCC criteria, commit to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, and end the burning of coal immediately in the power plant.

If the UI can petition the state of Iowa for $88 million in assistance to renovate the Pentacrest, then it can commit to pursuing climate action on your campus.

If the UI can rally the community to raise $98 million to renovate football stadium seats, then it can commit to pursuing climate action on your campus.

More than a century ago, UI President Thomas Macbride warned our state not to ignore the environmental crisis at hand: “The people would act today if the situation were clearly understood. The question is whether we do the right thing now or wait until the expense shall have increased a hundredfold.”

It’s time for you and the University of Iowa to do the right thing now.


Iowa City Climate Strikers
100 Grannies
Sen. Joe Bolkcom
Ann F. Christenson, UI alum ’58
Massimo Paciotto-Biggers, on behalf of IC Climate Strikers
Maddie Patterson, UI student
Elisabeth Neruda, UI student
Jaden Amjadi, UI student
Derian Lance, UI student
Isaac Kippes, UI student
Jessica Oliver, UI student
Sheila Zeithamel, UI alum
Tom Yates, UI alum
Becky Hall, UI alum
Tom Carsner, UI alum
Mary Kirkpatrick, UI alum
Joan Cook, UI Alum Jan Stephan, RN MA UIHC retired
Jeff Biggers, UI Writer-in-Residence, Office of Sustainability, 2013-2017
Charlene Lange, Pat Bowen, Geoff Lauer, Deb Schoelerman, Miriam Kashia, Carla Paciotto, Erika Lauer, John Christenson, Blair Frank