Guest Commentary: UI breaks promises with Dynegy sponsorship

Guest Commentary: UI breaks promises with Dynegy sponsorship

By LAURA SCHULTZ

The University of Illinois loves to tout itself as a leader in environmental sustainability and the fight against climate change. In some ways, it certainly is. There is cutting-edge research across campus to address the climate crisis. The Illinois Climate Action Plan is working to achieve campus carbon neutrality by 2050. UI President Tim Killeen has declared the university system committed to "climate science and the development of an action agenda to understand, mitigate, adapt and build resiliency to... climate change."

Yet in the face of these commitments, $5.2 million of the university's endowment remains invested in coal. Millions of dollars more are still directly invested in oil and gas. And Fighting Illini Sports Properties has accepted a sponsorship from Dynegy, a Texas-based energy production company that operates 11 coal-fired power plants in the state of Illinois.

On Dec. 16, the company name will be on full display at the United Center in Chicago at the "Dynegy Shootout," where the men's basketball team will be playing New Mexico State University, and Lou Henson — the all-time winningest coach of both team's programs — will be honored.

It is mind-boggling that the university would accept this sponsorship in light of their climate commitments and Dynegy's track record in environmental damage.

In 2015, Dynegy was responsible for nearly half of Illinois' coal-based carbon emissions, equivalent to half of the transportation sector, and the entire industrial sector. Their power plants have a resounding negative effect on the health of the communities that surround them.

The E.D. Edwards plant, located near Peoria, caused roughly 29 premature deaths, 45 heart attacks and 490 asthma attacks in 2012. That same year, 210 total deaths across the state were attributed to the ill effects of coal-fired power plants.

Finally, the company's 11 facilities contain a staggering 70 million cubic yards of coal ash, the toxic leftover waste of burned coal — enough ash to fill the Empire State Building 51 times.

Coal ash releases toxic contaminants like arsenic and lead when exposed to water. Most of Dynegy's coal ash is stored in unlined pits. Because there is no barrier between Dynegy's ash pits and the surrounding environment, rain and groundwater that flows through the impoundments becomes contaminated, posing a direct threat to Illinois' groundwater and surface waterways. Dynegy has no plans to alleviate the risks of these impoundments as their power plants are gradually retired, even at the Vermilion Power Station near Oakwood. The plant has been closed since 2011, and yet it still has 3.3 million cubic yards of ash sitting on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River — Illinois' only federally recognized National Wild and Scenic River.

It is abundantly clear that Dynegy is no friend to the people of Illinois. The UI has no place accepting money from a company that has caused so much damage to this state, let alone putting the company name on a game to honor our most prestigious basketball coach. As such, the Illinois Student Government, Students for Environmental Concerns, Eco-Justice Collaborative and Prairie Rivers Network asks the Champaign-Urbana community to join us in calling for the University of Illinois to revoke Dynegy's sponsorship privileges of Fighting Illinois Sports Properties.

Laura Schultz is a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-president of the campus' Beyond Coal campaign. She is also a copy editor for Green Observer Magazine.

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