Coal Clunkers: The Post Looks at Chicago's Aging Coal Plants

Coal clunkers.

That's how the Washington Post and clean air advocates described the two antiquated coal plants operating in the midst of Chicago. The Post's article focused on the Fisk and Crawford generating stations and a fight to clean or close them because the plants are emblematic of a problem that is not unique to Chicago.

There are hundreds of coal plants around the country where utilities are using everything short of duct tape, baling wire and chewing gum to keep them running. Why? For the operators, it's cheap for the plants to be dirty. Ancient plants like these were "grandfathered" under the Clean Air Act---basically exempted from modern environmental requirements, with the expectation that they would close in the near future anyway because of their age. As long as the plants aren't modified, the plant owners are not required to add modern pollution controls to protect the health of the surrounding communities. Unfortunately, many antiquated plants, like Fisk and Crawford, have not closed as anticipated, but have continued to operate "cheaply" while polluting.

And that is how you get a facility like the over 100-year-old Fisk plant sitting in the midst of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood without the standard equipment to prevent particulate matter and other dangerous pollutants from raining down on the surrounding community. Neighbors complain of the fine dust coating their cars and floors inside their houses...tragically, its also coating the inside of their lungs.

So the operation of these facilities is not really "cheap" for the community, which subsidizes operations with their lungs, health and safety. This state of affairs is possible only because of a wholly perverse economics that rewards pollution and allows the dirty to unfairly compete with clean energy.

On top of this, the plants aren't even operating within the pollution limits actually applicable to old, "grandfathered" facilities. The data generated by the plants themselves demonstrates a long record of pollution violations under even the weaker standards applicable to the plants.

That's why the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago and Sierra Club, have initiated the legal process towards a Clean Air Act citizen suit against the owners and operators of the Chicago plants, Midwest Generation LLC, subsidiary of the energy giant, Edison International. It shouldn't have been a surprise, as the US EPA filed numerous notices of violations against the company's Illinois coal fleet.

In the press, the company has tried to sidestep the pollution issues we have raised with a series of remarkably un-compelling arguments.

First, they claim that at one time they released more pollutants (such as mercury and other contaminants) than they do today, and their spokesman is quoted in the Washington Post asserting that the company has thereby "demonstrated environmental responsibility at those plants."

Second, in the same article:

We don't hide the fact that there are emissions from our plants, but there are lots of other sources, too, other industries and cars and trucks going through there with emissions much closer to the ground.

Further, in the same article, the company spokesperson complains that the company "is being targeted unfairly because of 'heightened sensitivities' around the Chicago plants." 

So the company's response is essentially that they:

  • used to run even dirtier,
  • that "others" also pollute,
  • and finally that somehow attention to the pollution is unfair.

Perhaps the "heightened attention" has to do with the fact that the company's own data shows violation of the law, or that there is an asthma epidemic within Chicago that is exacerbated by the particulate pollution associated with the emissions from the plants. The arguments that the plants used to be dirtier and that "others" also pollute, don't excuse, rationalize, or really even explain the pollution.

Midwest Gen's plants are not living up to the standards set by the Clean Air Act. To imply it is OK to imperil the public health because there are other bad actors and dangerous pollution sources is not just a failure in rhetoric, but of corporate responsibility.

We've learned a lot about the dangers of coal plant emissions over the years, including that relying on two dirty coal plants in the midst of dense urban neighborhoods that cannot meet modern clean air standards is fundamentally wrong.  And with utilities like this flaunting the law, modern energy technologies cannot compete fairly. This is a national issue that will continue to make it impossible to straighten out our energy sector, let alone deal with the dangers of climate change.

The company's own records show that these plants are breaking the law. They have been allowed to skate by for a half century...that is far too long...its time to clean up or close down. We need to do this across the country, but I hope the process starts with Chicago's coal clunkers.