Pollution panel splits difference on coal-plant rules

The Illinois Pollution Control Board made concessions to environmentalists on clean-air standards and sent the compromise back to the public

The Cahokia Power Plant in Sauget shut operations in the ‘70s, but continues to be used for coal storage. (Flickr/Exothermic)

The Cahokia Power Plant in Sauget shut operations in the ‘70s, but continues to be used for coal storage. (Flickr/Exothermic)

By Ted Cox

A state pollution panel split the difference on proposed new clean-air regulations opposed by environmentalists Thursday and offered the compromise back to the public for consideration.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board revised a proposal to alter the way the state determines whether eight coal-fired power plants are obeying clean-air standards.

According to a story published Tuesday by Brett Chase with the Better Government Association, “Existing rules dictate that owner Dynegy run its cleanest coal plants — those with the best pollution controls — to balance toxins emitted by its dirtiest plants.”

Dynegy pushed two years ago to change that state regulation for another that would measure the total emissions from all its plants and set a maximum amount.

Environmentalists and other critics said that would give Dynegy incentive to close its cleaner plants.

Kady McFadden, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter, called it “a backroom deal” brokered last year between Dynegy executives and Illinois Environmental Protect Agency Director Alec Messina, an appointee of Gov. Rauner who has faced lawsuits over alleged ethical conflicts of interest.

The proposed new regulations also drew flak from the Sierra Club’s Piasa Palisades Group in Alton, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has also joined groups opposed to rewriting the clean-air law.

According to the BGA story, Messina previously worked as a lobbyist for an industry group including Dynegy, which earlier this year was bought by Texas-based Vistra Energy for $2 billion.

The IPCB issued a ruling Thursday that agreed to the total measure of emissions, but reduced the amount of permissible sulphur dioxide emissions by about a fifth, and also reduced permissible amounts of nitrogen emissions. It added that those “mass caps” would be reduced “when units are retired or mothballed,” same as was already in place if plants were sold.

In addition, rather than advance the compromise for final approval, the IPCB called Thursday’s order a “second first notice,” meaning it replaces the original proposal from a year ago and sends it back to the public to reconsider it.

In effect, it punts the final determination to the next gubernatorial administration after additional public hearings and, of course, after the Nov. 6 election between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker.

“We are seeing it as a rejection of Messina's backroom deal with coal-company execs by Rauner's own appointed Pollution Control Board,” McFadden said. “And it's an opportunity to come up with something better after hearing more from workers and affected communities.”

Rauner’s administration has struggled with environmental and public-health issues in the midst of the campaign, most prominently in the cancer scare involving the Sterigenics firm in Willowbrook he’s had an ownership stake in, as well as the repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy.

He’s also been caught in a political bind, with President Trump’s recent Republican proposal to relax clean-air standards by replacing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with his own so-called Affordable Clean Energy plan. That plan drew protests in Chicago this week from critics who declare it’s neither clean nor affordable, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

In a formal statement Thursday, the Illinois Sierra Club pointed out the Dynegy-Vistra merger was worth a total of $20 billion, even as the company cried poor in seeking the adjustment. It applauded the concessions, while adding, “The new proposal can still lead to thousands more tons of pollution than the original standard allowed for people in Peoria, Metro East, and other locations where poorer or minority communities live near power plants.” It called for the state pollution panel to hold additional public hearings in those affected areas.

“We know the Peoria-Pekin metro area has high asthma rates, and the Edwards coal plant pollution hits poor and minority neighborhoods the hardest, so any decision that allows the Edwards unscrubbed plant to run more means more people will really suffer,” said Robin Nolting of the Central Illinois Health Community Alliance. “This is very much an environmental-justice issue that will have many, many years of harmful effects. We fear that what the Pollution Control Board proposed today will still lead to an increase in air pollution here.”