Vistra closing four coal-powered plants

Sen. Manar, environmentalists charge ‘clean’ plants are being closed to leave ‘dirty’ ones operating

The Wood River coal power plant was closed by Dynegy before the energy company was bought by Vistra last year. (Shutterstock)

The Wood River coal power plant was closed by Dynegy before the energy company was bought by Vistra last year. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

A leading coal power company announced plans Wednesday to shut down four Illinois plants, but politicians and environmental groups charged the fix was in long ago and that it was shutting “clean” plants in order to keep “dirty” power stations open.

Vistra Energy announced it would be shutting down plants in Coffeen, Havana, and Hennepin, Ill., and also the Duck Creek plant in Canton. It estimated about 300 jobs would be lost.

Vistra President Curt Morgan called the closures “inevitable due to the changing regulatory environment and unfavorable economic conditions” in the Midwest energy market, but added, “They are nonetheless difficult to make.”

State Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill charged that the company was shutting down “the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the world” in Coffeen in order to keep “the worst polluters” open, and he accused the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Pollution Control Board of “fumbling” policy to enable that.

“Closing down the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the world makes zero sense,” Manar said in a statement. “Today, Vistra, the Illinois EPA, and Pollution Control Board together failed the environment.

“Shame on the Pollution Control Board for not doing its homework and allowing this to happen,” he added. “If power plants are to be closed, the worst polluters should close first.”

The Pollution Control Board rejected what the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter called a “backroom deal” on emissions negotiated by the Rauner administration last year and sent the issue back to the public, but environmentalists continued to warn that if it allowed the company to measure its total coal emissions and not distinguish between newer and older plants and technology it would give Vistra incentive to close its so-called cleaner plants and leave dirtier plants open.

Texas-based Vistra bought Dynegy’s Illinois power plants last year in a deal worth an estimated $2 billion.

Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin said those predictions had come true, issuing a statement saying: “Vistra’s announcement today is exactly what the company and Dynegy have stated it has wanted to do over the last couple years in pursuing revisions to Illinois’s Multi-Pollutant Standard: secure greater ‘flexibility’ in meeting less stringent, state pollution limits, so that the company can retire less-polluting plants and continue running dirty plants.

“This aging fleet has changed corporate hands three times in the last several years and instead of responsibly investing in modern pollution controls and long-term plans for our Illinois workforce, Texas energy corporations have routinely sought delays from state regulators in reducing pollution and have chosen to abruptly shutter units it knew were risky investments upon purchase,” he added. “While these companies repeatedly claimed financial hardship it has simultaneously brokered expensive deals and lucrative mergers for Houston shareholders.”

Manar said, “I remain puzzled as to why an out-of-state power company would purchase power plants solely for the purpose of shutting them down. From all outward appearances, Vistra is using Illinois’s Multi-Pollutant Standard Rule as an excuse to set into motion something they always intended to do. If that rule was truly intended to reduce emissions, this move stands in stark contrast to that goal.”

Environmentalists joined Manar in also bemoaning the loss of jobs. Manar said, “The economic loss related to this closure cannot be fully realized today. Hard-working, middle-class families have had their lives turned completely upside down. Our singular goal in the coming days and weeks should be to help these families through the economic crisis that Vistra set into motion today.”

“It’s certainly important that the fossil-fuel industry take care of the workers who have supported it over the years,” said Colleen Smith of the Illinois Environmental Council. “We’ve known for years that Vistra has plans to close coal plants, and has closed coal plants as at Wood Creek, and it needs to be proactive in insuring that the communities have support for the property-tax lost revenue and the jobs. It requires a comprehensive approach, and we believe that approach is the Clean Energy Jobs Act.”

Morgan promised to “do right” by employees, saying, “By far, the hardest decisions we make in our business are those that significantly impact our people. As always, we will do right by those who are impacted by this announcement. Our employees take pride in the work they do, and we appreciate their decades of service providing reliable and affordable power to Illinois, particularly in years like this one with periods of extreme cold and heat.”

Darin also drew attention to idled workers, while issuing another call for the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a pending piece of legislation in the General Assembly intended to build on the Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016.

“We are concerned about the workers and communities impacted by these announcements,” Darin said. “It is increasingly urgent that the state of Illinois put plans and programs in place that provide job opportunities and new economic development for those impacted, and that they are prioritized for all the benefits the clean-energy economy can deliver. The Clean Energy Jobs Act will provide a framework for that transition, and we urge the General Assembly to consider and approve it in their fall veto session.”