MU students seek coal-free campus

Thursday, September 13, 2012

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Student activists at the University of Missouri are taking their fight for a coal-free campus to the school's Board of Curators.

The Coal Free Mizzou student group wants university leaders to commit to using renewable energy to completely power the campus by 2015. They plan a coal-free demonstration today when the university system's governing board begins its two-day meeting on the Columbia campus.

Students say Missouri has an obligation to stop burning coal because it has a detrimental effect on human health and the environment. The school used more than 48,000 tons of coal to generate electricity in 2007, accounting for 80 percent of campus energy use.

The students' effort is part of a national Sierra Club campaign that focuses on coal use at U.S. universities.

"I have really high hopes for this university," said Sierra Club organizer Lindsey Berger of St. Louis, a recent Missouri State University graduate. "If our university can't lead on this front, how can we expect our state to follow? Everybody looks at universities for leadership and innovation."

Berger said those innovators include the system's Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, where a planned geothermal energy project financed by $32.4 million in curator-approved revenue bonds is expected to replace the campus' 67-year-old power plant and immediately save $1.4 million in annual energy and operational costs.

The Sierra Club cites 17 other campuses nationwide that have agreed since 2009 to move "beyond coal," including the University of Minnesota, Ohio University, Clemson, Cornell, Penn State and North Carolina.

University of Missouri officials on Wednesday touted the school's existing clean-energy efforts, though they stopped short of endorsing a broader move away from coal.

Karlan Seville, a campus facilities spokeswoman, cited a planned $75 million biomass boiler that will reduce campus coal consumption by 25 percent and burn wood scraps, corn cobs and other products for fuel. The school also buys wind energy from outside utilities, installed solar panels at its campus coal power plant and won an energy efficiency award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.

"MU is committed to reducing our carbon footprint," Seville said.

Those incremental steps are not enough, said Berger and Kelsey Wingo, a Missouri student helping to lead the campaign. They said the school hauls in between eight and 25 truckloads of coal daily from an Illinois coal company and still generates the majority of its power by burning coal.

They plan a "storyboard presentation" displayed on posters that will greet the eight curators as they enter the meeting, followed by a 50-person procession into the board meeting Thursday afternoon. Berger said the group's efforts to formally address the university governing board were rebuffed -- a scenario University of Missouri Press supporters complained about when trying to get curators' attention at a previous meeting this year after the school said it planned to shut down the academic press. University President Tim Wolfe later reversed that decision.

"We've met with Chancellor (Brady) Deaton and numerous people we've been directed to meet with," Berger said. "The issue keeps getting pushed aside. ... There is no end game in sight. We will no longer allow this to be pushed aside."

Board chairman David Bradley said he is willing to listen to the students but wants to hear their information before discussing the specifics of their demand.

"We'll see the information they present, and then figure out what to do with it," he said.

Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at

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