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About 100 people gathered outside Brookings Hall on Washington University’s campus on Wednesday, calling on the school to sever its ties with St. Louis-based Peabody Energy.

Alison Tune, a senior, said she was there because the issue was an important one to her.

“As an environmental science major, this is a really big deal to me,” she said. “Knowing all the environmental problems coal causes, and it’s not a clean energy source, even though there’s a clean coal consortium.”

That was one of the conditions demonstrators asked for: They want Peabody to stop sponsoring the university’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. They also want to see Peabody CEO Greg Boyce leave the university’s board of trustees.

In a statement, a Peabody spokeswoman said the company “is proud to support Washington University in St. Louis and its leadership in education, as well as in clean coal research.”

A growing number of student groups nationwide are calling for their schools to divest ownership in coal companies as public sentiment against the industry grows.

Locally, Peabody especially has been targeted. The gathering Wednesday was partially organized by Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, or MORE, which has taken aim at the company before.

The group led the effort to collect signatures for a ballot issue that would prohibit companies that engage in “unsustainable” energy production from receiving St. Louis tax incentives. The measure would have been put to city voters on Tuesday but was knocked off the April ballot by Judge Robert Dierker in response to a lawsuit brought by three city residents who challenged the measure’s constitutionality.

The gathering targeted Peabody despite the university’s ties to other companies in the fossil fuel industry. Boyce isn’t the only coal executive on the board of trustees. Arch Coal’s chairman, Steven Leer, also sits on the board.

Peabody, along with Arch Coal and Ameren Missouri, one of the country’s largest coal-burning utilities, helped launch in 2008 the clean coal consortium that is dedicated to finding ways to minimize coal’s environmental impact. The three companies committed to a combined $12 million in funding for the institute.

On Tuesday, the consortium announced it had won a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help its principal researcher, Richard Axelbaum, continue to refine a technology to make it easier to trap and control carbon dioxide emitted from coal combustion.

“Coal is, and will continue to be, an important source of energy for the United States and the world,” a Washington University spokeswoman said in a statement. “An aim is to develop approaches for use of coal to minimize adverse effects on the environment.”

Coal is the country’s most widely used fuel to produce power. Last year, coal generated 39 percent of the U.S. electricity supply.

A MORE representative said the group and students plan to maintain a presence on campus in order to raise more awareness among other students and faculty.

Washington University spokeswoman Susan Killenberg McGinn said the university welcomes student expression about coal or any other issues. “We want our students to be motivated and engaged citizens and to develop into strong leaders,” she said. “This is a very important part of their academic experience at Washington University.”

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Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291