Great news out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Today the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced that burning coal has no place in our clean energy future and is transitioning away from using pollution-rich coal power to power this nationally-ranked university.

I attended the press with UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp as he outlined how they were going to start testing alternative fuels and phasing in alternatives as fast as possible, and end coal use altogether no later than 2020

I was also joined at the press conference by Stewart Boss, one of the student leaders of the Coal-Free UNC Campaign. It was Stewart and his fellow students who began a campaign a year ago to get UNC to walk the talk, and credit to Chancellor Thorp for hearing and responding to their concerns. A huge amount of the credit also goes to Tim Toben, the chair of the UNC taskforce that the Chancellor charged with making recommendations about coal’s future role on campus. 

Universities must be on the leading edge of the transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Today UNC takes another major step in that direction,” Thorp said during today’s press conference. “The University of North Carolina has been a national leader in campus sustainability. Our systems for energy efficiency, cogeneration of electricity and steam, waste recycling, green building, mass transit and water conservation are models. Our commitment to end the use of coal will also be a model for other campuses.”

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UNC is now leading by example. College campuses cannot responsibly teach about the dangers of air pollution, the science of climate change and leadership in sustainability in classrooms powered by coal. We applaud UNC for agreeing to a firm deadline and we will continue to work with the University to end its coal use as soon as possible, i.e. well before 2020. 

Best of all this shows the power and effectiveness of students who want clean energy. The Sierra Club’s Coal-Free Campus Campaign is focusing on the last 60 U.S. college campuses that are still burning coal, including UNC and its coal-burning facility on Cameron Avenue. UNC students led an intensive campaign, coming together on numerous occasions to rally and call for an end to coal and to use more clean energy on campus.

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Together with all these amazing students, we are urging these campuses to lead by example, cut their pollution, and end burning coal as soon as possible. Chancellor Thorp has responded by appointing 10 students, faculty and community members (including our own Molly Diggins, the state director of the Sierra Club) to a task force to make recommendations before year’s end to reduce Carolina’s carbon footprint.

This great news from UNC comes on the heels of last Friday’s announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency, when the agency proposed strong new rules to limit hazardous air pollution from industrial boilers, which includes most campus coal plants.

The new EPA rules are designed to protect residents who live near and downwind from these coal plants. Specifically the rules will substantially reduce emissions of toxic air pollution, like mercury, arsenic and cadmium, which can cause cancer, reproductive disorders and other serious health problems.

These decisions are great moves for clean energy and cleaning up coal.

My hope is that today’s announcement will serve as encouragement for the thousands of students who have been engaged in similar efforts on college campuses nationwide,” said Stewart Boss, coordinator for the Coal-Free UNC Campaign and co-chair for the UNC chapter of the Sierra Student Coalition.

“The fight to stop burning dirty coal is absolutely necessary to protect our communities, our country, and our planet. Our universities can and should be at the forefront of developing clean energy technologies and preparing students to be clean energy leaders.  I urge other universities to follow UNC’s lead in moving beyond coal.”

Congratulations to UNC’s students, staff and community. This is the kind of progress we need on our nation’s college campuses, in our cities and nationwide in all of our communities.  Together, we can build a clean energy economy in the U.S.

BONUS COAL NEWS: Today EPA announced it is “proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.”

Included in the Agency’s plan are two options: one includes strong, federally enforceable safeguards to protect the public from toxic coal ash, and the other treats toxic coal ash (which contains potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals) less stringent than household garbage. Both the science and past failures of the patchwork of state-based regulations call for the stronger, federal protections. There will be a 90-day public comment period during which Sierra Club will be working hard to call on EPA to adopt the most protective safeguards.

We’re still digging into this announcement to figure out all the details of the rules, and we’ll update this post or post a new column once we know more. You can at least learn a little more on the official EPA rule website