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Evansville
Tuesday, December 6, 2022

A Watchful Eye

Aloft over Henderson County in a small Cessna, John Blair points out the windows in each direction and out to the horizon, identifying the power plants visible from 3,000 feet. He locates nearly a dozen plants, including the Rockport Power Plant with one of the tallest stacks in the world (1,038 feet) and Gibson Station, operated by Duke Energy, 2008’s third largest power plant in the United States for generating capacity, according to Electric Light & Power magazine.

Blair is on assignment to produce aerial photographs of a large construction project of an Evansville-based firm and has hired a pilot from Don Davis Aviation out of Henderson, Ky., to fly him up the Ohio River. The bird’s eye views he creates pay the bills and stoke his passion: the health of the citizens of the Ohio Valley. For around three decades, Blair and the organization he co-founded, Valley Watch, have been the most vocal and active area advocates for clean air and water.

“I, personally, and Valley Watch have had tremendous victories,” Blair says, claiming a record of 33 wins and four losses against projects and endeavors that his organization claims would cause serious harm to the public health of the Ohio Valley.

“Three fights have lasted more than seven years; that wears you out,” Blair says, referring to the lengthy battles of the Marble Hill nuclear power plant near Madison, Ind., in the late 1970s and early ’80s and Peabody Energy’s Thoroughbred plant (Muhlenberg County, Ky.) from 2001 to 2008.

“I lost most of my friends during Marble Hill,” Blair says. “They didn’t want to hang around me; I learned how to back off. It’s how I keep my sanity.”

Born in Winchester, Ind., Blair, the son of an entrepreneurial father and a mother who worked in health care, came to Evansville in 1974 to teach photojournalism at the University of Evansville. (Today, he teaches photography classes at the University of Southern Indiana.) He has a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy from Indiana University and a master’s degree in journalism from Ball State University. “I use both of my degrees every day,” Blair says.

“My instincts about environmental issues are pretty good now. I’m a quick learner and pretty good at research, too,” Blair says.

A fight in his backyard quickly was resolved earlier this year. Blair worked behind the scenes, talking with city and state agencies to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from storing lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil from the Superfund environmental cleanup of the Jacobsville neighborhood at a site near Glenwood Middle School.

“We met on a Saturday with the EVSC (Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation) and the Glenwood Neighborhood Association, and by the following Friday, the EPA had changed its plans,” Blair says, stating the contaminated soil would be hauled to the Laubscher Meadows landfill in Vanderburgh County.[pagebreak]

Grassroots Strategy

Kim Sherman was introduced to Blair’s grassroots methods soon after moving to Evansville in 2002 from Omaha, Neb., when her husband, Pete, joined the faculty of the University of Evansville. The Shermans live in Warrick County with their three children. Kim Sherman has a degree in political science from Oklahoma State University.

Sherman had lived in Omaha (population 419,545) and Lincoln, Neb. (population 241,167), and “neither of those towns had ozone alerts,” Sherman says. “I was naïve.”

“Evansville’s a great community; we love it here,” Sherman adds. The frequency of the area’s ozone alerts, however, alarmed her. Sherman began to seek information and quickly learned Blair’s name. “To have done what he’s done all these years — that’s where John is really a standout,” she says.

As a result of Blair’s outreach, Sherman and several friends formed Air Aware, an informal advocacy group that shares information on environmental hearings, attends events such as Alcoa’s environmental open houses, and collaborates on letter-writing campaigns. A primary focus of Sherman’s group has been air quality in Warrick County schools. She’s made a presentation to the Warrick County school board seeking air purifiers and has requested the installation of air quality monitors in the schools; neither request has received action.

“(Blair) really opened my eyes. Coming here, I was completely uninformed about these things. I feel like John has made a difference,” she says. “He’s persistent, relentless. There’s never a time when he’s not thinking, ‘What’s next?’”

What is Next?

Though Blair clearly has more than a fight left in him, he has become increasingly distressed over his perception of local attitudes.

“I continue to hope that my efforts to protect the public’s health will catch on and grow around here,” he says. “But sometimes I think I have wasted my adult life in a region that doesn’t seem to care whether it lives or dies.”

This was a theme that played out at a meeting Blair addressed last August at Kentucky Wesleyan College in advance of a public hearing on Indiana Gasification LLC’s plans to develop a Southwest Indiana plant to convert coal to substitute natural gas. Blair was introduced by Lee Dew of Owensboro, Ky. Dew, a retired Kentucky Wesleyan history professor, is a part-time organizer for the Sierra Club’s Western Kentucky Water Sentinel, which bills itself as the first line of defense of America’s waters.

“I met John Blair 32 years ago fighting coal to gas plants. They still are not here, but their ghosts still stalk,” Dew said, introducing Blair. “I see John Blair as the primary champion of the environment of the Tri-State and of the lower Ohio Valley, against formidable odds.”

With a booming voice and animated gestures, Blair launched into his presentation:

“There are really only two issues that I am going to talk about. One of them is health. And the other one is economics. I’m really not sure if most Americans really give a damn about whether they live or die. I’m really not! I’ve come to that conclusion after 30 years of seeing people act like they’re resigned to their fate.”

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation of data compiled from the Toxics Release Inventory published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Blair produced slide after slide demonstrating Southwest Indiana is among the nation’s hottest “toxic hotspots.”

A student also of popular culture who admits to wishing every day since he turned 40 (Blair is 64) that he’d gone to law school, Blair threw in a reference to the lyrics of John Prine’s “Paradise” about Muhlenberg County, Ky.’s Paradise mine.[pagebreak]

On The Same Side

Niel Ellerbrook, recently retired CEO of Vectren, who remains chairman of the utility’s board of directors, has formed a productive relationship with Blair.

“John Blair is a true believer, sincere,” Ellerbrook says. “I have never doubted his motives. Early on, I decided I didn’t have any personal wars with John. I knew the issues we deal with are important to him and gave him access. I always thought it was in Vectren’s best interest if he had the facts. Corporately, we share John’s view of clean air, and we have invested heavily in clean air. We have pursued a policy of investing capital to improve air quality.”

Ellerbrook and Blair have shared plane rides to Indianapolis for various testimonies on the Indiana Gasification plant, and on one occasion, Ellerbrook introduced Blair to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. (Blair made a video of the encounter for Ellerbrook.)

Blair is among the numerous people whom Ellerbrook personally called prior to his public retirement announcement. Blair, a shareholder of Vectren Corp. stock, attends all Vectren annual meetings, and this year requested a seat on its board of directors but was denied.

On the proposed coal gasification plant in Southwest Indiana, Blair and Ellerbrook sit on the same side of the debate — but from differing perspectives. “John comes at this from an environmental perspective, and we look at it from an economic viewpoint,” Ellerbrook says. “Is it reasonable to believe that coal can be converted to pipeline-quality gas at a reasonable cost? In the capitalistic system we work in, this is where the coal is. John’s reasonably realistic about the use of coal. From a public policy standpoint, he wants to push as hard as he can.”

“I have found him to be an interesting guy,” Ellerbrook says. “He’s a substantive guy; he does his homework. I do think his tactics sometimes get in the way of his effectiveness.”

Civil Disobedience

John Blair has been twice arrested: only once for civil disobedience, though he expected to be arrested a third time, in Washington, D.C., in March 2009, for helping shut down the Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools the halls of Congress.

His arrest on Dec. 19, 1985, for stealing a gold-painted shovel at Union Carbide’s groundbreaking ceremony, garnered Blair more attention than winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography seven years earlier (see “A Pulitzer Picture,” p. 33).

In an editorial published in the political newsletter CounterPunch (www.counterpunch.org) on Dec. 15, 2005, Blair wrote:

“Twenty years ago today, I was arrested for ‘stealing’ the gold painted groundbreaking shovels at the Union Carbide PCB facility in Henderson, Ky. In many ways, that cold morning defined my life since.

“First, committing an act of civil disobedience in a conservative community removed any obscurity I had enjoyed up to that time.”

Of great disappointment to Blair is that the plant did open — one of the four losses among 33 wins Valley Watch counts in its battle for a healthy environment. (The other losses are American Electric Power’s Rockport Power Plant, built in the late 1970s; a permit modification to the Browning-Ferris Industries Laubscher Meadows landfill in 1996; and Peabody Energy’s Prairie State power plant in Southern Illinois, which broke ground in 2007.)[pagebreak]

Blair ultimately earned an award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana for the circumstances surrounding his Feb. 6, 2002, arrest at the appearance of Vice President Dick Cheney in Evansville. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct as he silently stood across the street from The Centre, holding a sign that read: “Cheney, 19th Century Energy Man.” A federal judge ruled Blair’s arrest violated Blair’s constitutional rights and entitled him to monetary damages. While Blair collected a modest financial award, he believes what is most significant is that Blair v. Evansville now is part of the legal lexicon, and the opinion the judge wrote was strong in its upholding of both the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution.

Stashed in the entry of Valley Watch’s near-Downtown offices are stacks of bumper stickers promoting freedom of speech and pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution. Blair’s iPhone features an app of the Constitution, but he rarely refers to it anymore, he acknowledges, so great is his familiarity.

Blair’s arrests have shaped the public’s perception of him, he believes, saying, “I’m probably much more conservative than most people think. Conservation is conservative; I don’t understand how people can see it any other way.”

Twice Blair has run for public office, both times as a Democrat, and in 1996, he ran for the EVSC School Board.

A Modest Family

Married for 38 years, John and Mary Blair met when they were both working in Indianapolis. Crossing a downtown street, Mary’s shoe got caught in a chuckhole, and John caught her attention. Mary is the executive director of the Tri-State Food Bank.

“John always has been investigating things; it’s just his nature,” Mary says. “He’s pretty much made it his mission in life to educate the public about health. It takes a lot of his time; we’ve had to live most modestly. We’re not big consumers.”

For the past six years, Mary acknowledges, the family has gone without air conditioning. “There have been many times when I’ve been so ready to turn it on, then I think, just one more day, and we keep going.”

The Blairs have two grown children, Stephanie, 30, and Will, 27, both of Evansville. Stephanie has Down syndrome; she works at a Downtown deli and calls her dad frequently in the day to report her goings on. Blair always greets her call with an enthusiastic, “Hey, Steph.”

“She’s taught me more than I’ve ever taught her,” Blair says. “She’s taught me tolerance.”

Though he professes to be depressed over the public’s attitude toward its own health, the probability is high that in the next year tally marks will be recorded in Blair’s and Valley Watch’s win-loss stats as Indiana comes to grips with the high costs associated with coal gasification.

Blair says, “If I have something to add to the conversation, I’ll add it” — in a loud voice.

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