State sets date for coal regulations

Illinois Pollution Control Board goes back to square one with a late-January public hearing on emissions at coal-fired power plants

The coal-fired Fisk power plant in Chicago was shut down early in the decade. (Wikimedia Commons/Theodore Kloba)

The coal-fired Fisk power plant in Chicago was shut down early in the decade. (Wikimedia Commons/Theodore Kloba)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — The Illinois Pollution Control Board set a late-January date Thursday for a hearing on new emission standards for coal-fired power plants.

Last month, the board rebuffed Gov. Rauner and his Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in their bid to change the way emissions are measured. They proposed allowing Vistra Energy, new owner of what was previously known as the Dynegy coal plants in Illinois, to measure the emissions from all their eight Illinois plants together, instead of being forced to keep their cleanest plants open to balance out toxins released into the air.

Critics said that would encourage Vistra to close its cleanest plants and simply make sure the emissions from the others didn’t top permissible amounts. The Pollution Control Board split the difference, however, allowing the measurement of total emissions, but greatly reducing the permissible amounts of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen released into the atmosphere.

The board also didn’t advance that proposal, but sent it back to square one for public hearings. On Thursday, in a pre-hearing teleconference involving interested parties at the Thompson Center in Chicago and at state offices in Springfield, the board set dates of Jan. 29 and 30 for the public hearing in the state capital.

Last month, Lumina, a Vistra subsidiary, issued a statement basically agreeing to the new regulations. While stating that it preferred the more relaxed standards originally proposed by Rauner and his IEPA, it added, “The company believes the IPCB proposal to be thoughtful and reasonable. Luminant will work constructively through the remainder of the process and looks forward to fully implementing the new standards.”

It added that “the IPCB's amendments, while restrictive, are reasonable and would provide a streamlined regulatory structure to allow Luminant to run its downstate fleet more efficiently under one, fleet-wide, mass-based tonnage cap.”

Vistra did push for the process to be expedited, but the board rejected that last week. Between a public-comment period and the upcoming holidays, late January was determined to be the earliest date for the hearing.

“We agree that the record is complete,” said Vistra attorney Joshua More, and “the other issues have been resolved.” He sought a “limited hearing” and cited state regulations that material shouldn’t be repeated or rehashed.

“Forgive my sort of amusement,” said hearing officer Marie Tipsord. “There’s going to be nothing to keep us from getting repetitive comments.

“The public feels they need to be heard,” she added, and people will be allowed to state their complaints if they feel coal plants are affecting their breathing.

They did agree that the hearing could most likely be done in a day and even in the afternoon and evening of Jan. 29, but set aside the following day as well just in case things should require it.

That will come after Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker is inaugurated Jan. 14, but no one mentioned that that might alter the process. The Illinois Pollution Control Board already signaled its independence from the Rauner administration with its decision last month, and basically punted it to the new administration by setting the process back to the public-hearing stage.