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‘State of Change’ program focuses on the effect of carbon in Illinois

Middle Fork of the Vermilion River

URBANA – Carbon is a key to life on Earth. Whether it’s animals, people, plants, or water, life on our planet would not be possible without carbon. Human use of carbon means Illinois and our planet are in a State of Change

The second episode of State of Change premieres Thursday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m. on WILL-TV. Hosted by Illinois Public Media host/producer Tinisha Spain, the special will explore:

  • What is carbon? How is it shaping climate change? Why is Illinois an ideal place for carbon storage?
  • How Illinois researchers are developing reduced carbon concrete.
  • How a byproduct of burning carbon is threatening a natural area in Vermilion County.
  • How companies are paying Illinois farmers to help offset carbon emissions.
  • And meet a couple who is running their brewery off the grid, free of carbon.

What is carbon?

For those of us who have not been in science class for years, State of Change takes the mystery out of the element of carbon, which is all around us. We talk with Sallie Greenberg, geologist at the University of Illinois and principal research scientist for the Illinois State Geologic Survey. She explains the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide. Greenberg also explains why  a special 7-layer geological formation makes Illinois a good place to store carbon, which could help mitigate the worst effects of climate change. “I like to say I’m unbiased when I say this,” says Greenberg. “We have great rocks in Illinois. And we have really suitable geology for carbon storage.”

The danger below

In Eastern Illinois, there is a race against time. Upstream from the picturesque Kickapoo State Park and Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is a shuttered power station. It turned coal into electric energy from the late 1950s until 2011.

“Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal, similar to a campfire where you burn, you have ash down, and you also have ash that flew up out of the campfire,” says Andrew Rehn, water resource engineer with Prairie Rivers Network. “One difference is that coal has trace elements of things like arsenic or molybdenum, chromium, radium, and those trace elements are concentrated in what’s left over.”

That ash with those elements is buried in ponds near the river. Vistra, the company that owns the plant is working to remove the leftover coal ash but say it could take years to remove and bury it in a safer place. Meanwhile, environmentalists and park enthusiasts say the coal ash is seeping into the riverbanks. And they are worried about break in soil which could send millions of gallons of coal ash into the wilderness.

Rehn warns this is not an issue unique to Eastern Illinois. “Power plants across Illinois have been in across the country just building up these coal ash ponds, acres, large millions of cubic yards of coal ash at almost all of these sites. So, the Middle fork is just one example.”

Working on Solutions

Illinoisans are at the forefront of several projects to mitigate carbon emissions. Former Illinois Public Media agriculture and environmental reporter Dana Cronin talked with farmers in Bloomington. Programs are popping up across the agriculture industry, targeting everything from corn and soybean farms in the Midwest to cotton fields in the South. 

Concrete is one of the world’s most widely used materials. University of Illinois civil engineering professor Nishant Garg helped create a form of concrete that emits less carbon dioxide. One of the world’s leading technology companies, Meta (home of Facebook), is using that material to build a new campus in DeKalb.

According to the site CO2Everything, brewing one bottle of beer produces the same amount of carbon as driving a mile in a car. A couple in Georgetown explains how they are making a difference. They have built an entire brewery and bar that is run completely off the grid.

Production funding provided by the Backlund Charitable Trust.

Tinisha Spain is the host and producer of State of Change. Sam Mirpoorian is the videographer, editor, and drone operator. Reginald Hardwick is the executive producer. DJ Roach is the video production manager. Kurt Bielema produced the graphics used in the special. Lillie Duncanson is the Director of Broadcast Operations at Illinois Public Media. Moss Bresnahan is the executive director at Illinois Public Media.

Picture of Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick is the News & Public Affairs Director for the Illinois Newsroom. He started at WILL in October of 2019 after serving as News Director for WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan. Previously, he was a news producer and manager at the NBC station in Dallas, where he won 7 Emmy awards. Born in Vietnam, Reginald is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. Email: rh14@illinois.edu Twitter: @RNewsWILL

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