Dangerous, Dirty, and Done for: Suits Should Help the Sun Set on Dirty Coal Plants in Chicago

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Have you ever driven on the Stevenson Expressway in Chicago? If so, you’ve probably passed two of the city's more antiquated relics...

They are easy to ignore if you don’t know what you are looking at---we aren’t talking about monumental architecture or the glories of ancient civilizations here. Just three anonymous smokestacks that signify a long-departed way of thinking about cities and energy.

Unfortunately, despite their antiquity, the Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations are "living history," playing an active part in the present life and times of Chicago, and dangerously behind the times. We’ve learned a lot about the dangers of coal plant emissions over the years, and continuing to rely on two dirty coal plants in the midst of dense urban neighborhoods that cannot meet modern clean air standards is fundamentally wrong.

While you don’t need to be Indiana Jones to find these things, you might need a kind of engineering archaeologist to recognize the pulverized coal technology employed by Midwest Generation, LLC at the Fisk and Crawford (as well as their other Illinois plants in Waukegan, Peoria, and Joliet). Fisk was built over 100 years ago in what is now the Pilsen neighborhood, and operated by Sam Insull as a corner stone to his fledgling electric utility. New generating equipment was put in place in the 50’s.  But the pollution control equipment required for all new plants by the Clean Air Act has not been installed to assure safer performance of the plant consistent with technology required in modern facilities. So, for many decades, the plant has been dumping contaminants into the air without updated, modern pollution controls. What seemed innovative at the beginning of the last century is seriously out of compliance with contemporary standards for health and safety. And the residents in the Pilsen and Little Village, the host communities for the Fisk and Crawford plants, have been telling anyone who will listen about the old plants’ impact: on their lungs and well being. This comes as no surprise as the USEPA has cited Midwest Generation’s plants for numerous ongoing pollution issues.  

Further, it has long been recognized that reliance on the plants for the delivery of electricity within Chicago presents a reliability problem for the city’s energy system. In fact, back in 1991 the Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations were noted as a problematic choke points for the movement of energy into Chicago, and the city and Commonwealth Edison utility that then owned the plants negotiated a deal to build out new transmission lines to relive the city from this reliance on the unreliable--but it never happened. The plants changed ownership and the new transmission lines were not built.

And the plants are inefficient. They don’t even distribute a significant amount of the energy they produce---much of it is literally dumped into the Chicago River and the Sanitary and Ship Canal in the form of excess heat.

For years, the goal of retiring these plants and replacing them with the modern energy infrastructure available and needed in this city has been proposed, but not achieved. Instead, we get a stream of pollution that is affecting our neighborhoods and our planet, from antiquated, unreliable plants. The time has come to admit the problem and fix it.

And so today, a coalition of Illinois health and environmental groups have notified Midwest Generation, LLC of their intent go to court to force the plants to clean up or shut down. No more excuses. Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago and Sierra Club, filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue today, the first step in a Clean Air Act citizen suit. This action brings a new legal aspect to the ongoing conflict between the coal plants and the working class, minority communities in which they are located. 

These dirty coal plants are a barrier to Chicago's green aspirations, a threat to the public health and safety of this city, and a liability to our clean energy future. There just isn’t a place for dirty, unreliable plants that don’t meet modern health and safety standards within a great city and nation. We can do better. It is in our interest to build a new energy economy that will protect the public, create jobs and deliver clean energy to our communities. So, let’s get with the times and do what’s right for the citizens of Chicago: clean up Fisk and Crawford, or dump them into the scrapheap of history.


Fisk Generating Station from the Chicago Riverphoto by David Schalliol via Flickr