Pressure Building on Future of 2 Coal-Burning Power Plants

Posted: 8/6/2010

From The New York Times:

Mayor Richard M. Daley has repeatedly billed himself as a green mayor and recently vowed to use "every available tool" to reduce the city's carbon footprint, but critics say City Hall has failed to grapple with Chicago's two most significant sources of greenhouse-gas pollution.

For the past decade, public health and environmental advocates have been trying to force Midwest Generation L.L.C. to reduce emissions from its aging Fisk and Crawford coal-burning power plants in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, abutting Cermak and Pulaski Roads near the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Yet Mr. Daley has fought City Council efforts to clean up emissions from the plants and has not said whether he will support a new proposal by Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) to force the plants to reduce emissions.

Together, the plants emit an estimated five million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says particulate matter from coal-burning plants poses a serious public health risk for local residents.

On July 21, Mr. Daley spoke at the official opening of the nation's largest urban solar-energy plant in West Pullman, a plant owned and operated by the Exelon Corporation. His pledge that day to use every means to combat heat-trapping gases drew applause from clean-air groups.

But the same groups question why the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan -- which committed the city to sharply reducing its carbon output through sustainable development, renewable energy and energy efficiency -- does not deal with carbon-dioxide emissions from the two coal plants. Public health authorities and clean-air groups say they are among the dirtiest for their size in the nation.

"It's just strange the two largest sources of global-warming pollution in the city aren't really addressed," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "They're the elephants in the room."

Critics say the action plan is just one of several instances in which the mayor has failed to address pollution from the plants, which were built in the early 1900s and which now have operating systems half a century old.

In 2002, Alderman Edward M. Burke (14th Ward) proposed an ordinance that would have forced the plants to cut their sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-dioxide emissions by up to 90 percent. But, lacking support from the mayor, the measure never made it out of committee.

Now Alderman Moore has introduced a proposed ordinance that could force the plants either to shut down or to convert to cleaner-burning natural gas. Unlike Mr. Burke's proposal, Mr. Moore's addresses carbon dioxide emissions -- which scientists see as the main culprit in climate change -- along with pollutants that pose an immediate health risk.

Midwest Generation said that the city lacked the authority to regulate the coal plants and that only the state and federal government could do so. If the Moore proposal passes, the company will challenge Chicago's regulatory authority in court, said Charley Parnell, a spokesman for Midwest Generation.

 While the mayor and top city officials have not taken a public position on the proposed ordinance - and Mr. Daley declined to comment on the matter - Mr. Moore said they had indicated they wanted to leave the matter to federal regulators. So far, the ordinance has 14 co-sponsors in the Council, more than half of the votes it needs to pass.

Critics attribute the lack of political support in part to substantial political donations that Midwest Generation and its parent company, Edison Mission Group, have made over the past decade. They include nearly $50,000 to the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization of Alderman Danny Solis of Pilsen and more than $10,000 to the campaign fund of Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward) of Little Village. The company has also donated to the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee.

"We participate in the system and support good people who represent the communities in which we operate," Mr. Parnell said.

This week Mr. Munoz signed on as a co-sponsor of Mr. Moore's proposal, and on Wednesday a Pilsen group protested outside a fund-raiser for Mr. Solis, demanding that he support the measure.

Mr. Moore said he hoped that, even without Mr. Daley's support, public concern over climate change and the increasingly understood health effects of particulate matter and other coal-plant pollutants would push more aldermen to support the proposal. He argued that home-rule provisions in the state's Constitution give Chicago the legal authority to limit emissions by the coal plants.

Mr. Parnell, of Midwest Generation, said the proposal could set a dangerous precedent.

"If we start to have a patchwork quilt of CO2 regulations that force the closure of these types of facilities," he said, "we will at some point run into a problem with a reliable, affordable, supply of power around the nation."

Mr. Moore called this "the same crying wolf we hear on the part of industry time and time again" whenever the Clean Air Act or other federal pollution regulations are tightened. "And each and every time," he continued, "they find it within their ability to comply with the regulations and continue to operate profitably."

Other than experimental technologies, which have not been used on a commercial scale, experts say there is no way to sufficiently reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants to satisfy the proposed ordinance.

Retrofitting the plants to burn natural gas only would be prohibitively expensive, Mr. Parnell said.

"This is a shutdown ordinance," he said. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about that."

There is no shortage of electricity generation in the Chicago area. In fact, Illinois is a net electricity exporter, and Midwest Generation sells power from its Illinois plants to Pennsylvania.

"The reality is the coal comes from Wyoming, other states get the power, Midwest Generation gets the profit, and Chicago gets the pollution and health costs," said Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Officials with Midwest Generation and ComEd, an Exelon subsidiary that distributes the electricity, say that the Chicago plants are needed to maintain consistent voltage levels on the local electric grid, and that shutting them down could mean blackouts downtown.

ComEd said it was seeking approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission to spend $178 million on new transmission lines so it could maintain stability on the grid if the Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations were shut down. Bennie Currie, a ComEd spokesman, said the upgrade would entail rate increases of about 20 cents a month for residential customers.

Under a 2006 agreement with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Midwest Generation must reduce nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions at its six Illinois plants. The company has already made the mercury reductions at the Fisk and Crawford plants, and Mr. Parnell said it was on track to meet the nitrogen-dioxide requirements by 2012. Midwest Generation would have to install "scrubbers" at Fisk by 2015 and at Crawford by 2018 to comply with the sulfur-dioxide limits.

National organizations, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are backing the proposed Chicago ordinance and see it as a possible national model.

"The big issue here is, will the mayor support it?" said Bruce Nilles, director of the Beyond Coal campaign at the Sierra Club.

"This is the final moment in his legacy," Mr. Nilles said. "He's done a lot of incredible things for the city, but to continue to have two filthy coal plants in downtown Chicago has him looking a lot less green."

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