Federal deal on Indiana coal plants aims to clear Chicago's air
From Chicago Tribune:
In a move that could help clean up Chicago's chronically dirty air, the Obama administration on Thursday brokered a legal deal that cracks down on some of the biggest sources of pollution along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.
As part of the settlement, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. will permanently scuttle an idled coal-fired power plant in Gary and spend $600 million to install and improve pollution controls at three other aging electric generators in Chesterton, Michigan City and Wheatfield.
The improvements will reduce smog- and soot-forming sulfur oxide by 46,000 tons a year and curb lung-damaging nitrogen oxide by 18,000 tons annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA and Illinois officials have documented how the pollution swirls around the lake and contributes to air-quality problems miles away from the smokestacks.
Like many other Midwestern utilities, NIPSCO faced legal troubles for upgrading the power plants to keep them operating while failing to install modern pollution controls required under the Clean Air Act. The plants avoided the toughest provisions of the law for decades, in part because regulators assumed during the 1970s that the plants wouldn't be running much longer.
"This is a very significant development to protect public health and the environment in areas around these plants and throughout the entire region," said Susan Hedman, the EPA's regional administrator in Chicago.
Environmental groups hailed the NIPSCO deal as another step toward cleaner air in the region.
"Old coal plants have polluted our air and harmed our health for too long," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "It is extremely satisfying to see that the EPA has stepped up and righted a wrong that was costing us our health."
The settlement, hammered out by lawyers and inspectors from the agency's Chicago office, is the 17th negotiated by the EPA and the Justice Department as part of a national campaign started during the Clinton administration. Most of the cases involve companies in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin that operate coal plants dating back to the 1940s.
A federal lawsuit is pending against Midwest Generation, the owner of five plants in Chicago and its suburbs, and the EPA has filed an administrative complaint citing the owner of a former ComEd plant just over the state line in Hammond.
In addition to the equipment upgrades announced Thursday, NIPSCO will pay a $3.5 million fine and spend an additional $9.5 million on environmental projects, including soot filters for old diesel engines, cleaner wood stoves for homeowners and restoration of land next to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The environmentally sensitive area is sandwiched between the Chesterton and Michigan City plants.
As recently as 2006, federal records show, the Bailly plant in Chesterton emitted the nation's highest amount of nitrogen oxide in relation to the amount of electricity generated. Under pressure from the EPA, NIPSCO installed equipment to reduce the pollution from Bailly, and now will do the same at all of its power plants.
The company also agreed to install sulfur dioxide scrubbers on units that don't have the technology, and improve the performance of those that already do.
"This is a major win for our customers, the environment and the communities we serve," said Jimmy Staton, NIPSCO's chief executive.
If the company doesn't meet certain emission targets by 2018, the settlement requires it to shut the plants. But Kelly Carmichael, NIPSCO's director of environmental policy and permitting, vowed the new improvements will ensure it meets the deadline.
Coal plant pollution is a major health threat in the Chicago area. In the metropolitan region that stretches around Lake Michigan from Kenosha to Naperville to Gary, 347 people die, 584 suffer heart attacks and 264 are admitted to emergency rooms each year from exposure to the emissions, according to an analysis commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group.
Only New York and Philadelphia record more deaths and illnesses from coal plant pollution, the group concluded after relying on peer-reviewed methods endorsed by the EPA and National Academy of Sciences.