The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday March 22nd

Column: I’m going to fight the coal plant.

The UNC Cogeneration Facility, located on Cameron Avenue, pictured on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.
Buy Photos The UNC Cogeneration Facility, located on Cameron Avenue, pictured on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

I have a love-hate relationship with the UNC coal plant. Yeah, the UNC coal plant. The one you probably didn’t know existed. 

In all fairness, it's not actually supposed to still exist. Twelve years ago, former Chancellor Holden Thorp announced the plant would stop all use of coal by 2020. Yet on my walk to class every morning, there it is, sending beautiful plumes of CO2 and all sorts of other nasty — probably toxic — chemicals into the air from behind a large barbed wire-topped fence. 

I love it because its existence is funny in a, “Wow, we still have a University-owned coal plant, what the hell?” kind of way. I hate it because I don’t want to die in a climate change-induced disaster before I'm 30. 

A 2019 report indicated the plant releases four to six times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide gas allowed by the Clean Air Act, which is one of several reasons why groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Town of Carrboro are suing the Environmental Protection Agency over their permit for the plant. 

Why are they suing the EPA and not the University? Essentially, the EPA’s permit does not put a limit on the amount of coal the plant can burn, which means the permit — not the University — is what violates the Act. Furthermore, its location on West Cameron Avenue means it's spewing that toxic nonsense into the air right next to historically Black neighborhoods in the area. 

That doesn’t mean people outside of Carrboro are safe, though. UNC loves you (citation needed), and the pollution affects the entirety of campus, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

So why does the plant still exist? Would UNC really backtrack on a promise like that? 

Of course they would. Since Chancellor Thorp's announcement, the University has altered its goals. 

After a climate protest on campus last year, a UNC spokesperson told The Daily Tar Heel that the University planned to stop the use of coal "as soon as feasible," which is the kind of weak nonsense one could expect from a tech CEO when asked about the child labor in their cobalt supply lines. 

I will give UNC some credit. According to the most recent climate action plan, the University moved their carbon neutrality goal up 10 years from 2050 to 2040 and has reduced coal use by 52 percent compared to 2007.  Most of that has, however, been accomplished by partially switching the plant's boilers to natural gas — which is better but, you know, can still kill us all.

Let's be clear. Progress is progress. Climate change is not a binary prospect. We can’t stop it anymore. 

The only thing reducing carbon emissions does at this point is reduce the amount of people and ecosystems whose health is put at risk. Fewer people harmed is always a good thing. Fewer emissions and toxic chemicals is always a good thing. Climate doomer-ism is for lames and nihilists. 

I recognize UNC is hardly even a minor contributor to the totality that is the global climate crisis. In a perfect world, the General Assembly would take some of that $6 billion budget surplus they’re sitting on and use it to find an environmentally-friendly solution. 

And if UNC had a spine, they would have pushed for that. If I had a spine, I’d be tearing the coal plant down brick by brick, not sitting here writing. 

UNC, and for the record, this is the bare minimum: stop poisoning your students and community. Please. 


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