After decades of pushing back against public fury, basic economics, and the Clean Air Act, Chicago’s dinosaur coal plants are on their way out. A deal has been brokered with Midwest Generation, LLC to close the coal units at the notorious Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations, two facilities which have showered the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods (and a wide swath of the City) with particulate matter and dangerous air pollution for almost a century, operating long past their safe expiration date.
Not long ago, in response to some of our litigation against the plants, the Washington Post called Fisk and Crawford, “Coal Clunkers.” It was an apt description. 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, it 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 plants’ neighbors have been telling anyone who will listen about the smokestack impact. They have stories of fine dust coating their cars and floors inside their houses...tragically, it has also been coating the inside of their lungs.
The danger Fisk and Crawford presented to the community hasn’t been missed. Local media has dogged the facilities over the years, with the Trib recently noting the massive carbon plumes that help make Midwest Generation the worst greenhouse gas polluter in Illinois; and the proximity of Fisk to a school with off-the-charts levels of lead in the air around it. Last summer BusinessWeek made Fisk the poster boy for the Clean Air Act in the midst of Congressional efforts to roll back the essential protections.
For a very long time the antiquated nature of the plants was well recognized and the threat they pose to the energy system understood. In fact, when I was Commissioner of Environment for Chicago, ComEd (who then owned the plants) submitted an engineering study demonstrating the plants were an unreliable choke point for energy flowing into the City. The massive outages of 1999 that resulted in the emergency evacuation of the central business district confirmed those. ComEd began the upgrades to the system, and sold the plants to MidwestGen. Since then, Midwest Generation has clung to the illusion that the clunkers they bought were essential to a system that had, in fact, cut them lose... This, no doubt, helped set them on the ever-so-slow road to retirement instead of responsible management.
Not to blunt the long-delayed and deserved celebrations, but there are three nagging issues that I hope we address quickly now that the die is cast:
The Grid: Twenty years ago, when the City Council passed an energy agreement to allow transmission and distribution lines to traverse the public way, which spurred the ComEd study. Much has changed to energy policy and infrastructure over the past twenty years. It is time for the public to know whether those threats have been alleviated, and the choke points addressed.
The Sites: We don’t actually know what is going to happen to the properties where the plants sit. But it is safe to assume that Fisk is too small to do much with and could become a public amenity…eventually. But what is the legacy of 100 years of coal waste? NRDC has been working with Openlands to advise the mayor of Hammond about remediation steps necessary to prepare for the closure of the third plant in Sam Insull’s local fleet, State Line, just across the border at Indiana’s northernmost tip. There are likely issues of heavy metals and contaminants in the soil that must be investigated and dealt with before any public re-use is possible for what could be an attractive river-adjacent parcel amidst neighborhoods sorely lacking green space.
Illinois Coal: This state has been a hotbed of wrongheaded new coal proposals in the last few years. Think about the General Assembly’s efforts to put massive money towards the Tenaska and Leucadia projects. But let’s be clear about Fisk and Crawford: these decrepit plants were retired. They don’t need to be replaced. The plants were selling electricity to states out east, which is par for the course in a state that exports 30% of the electricity it generates. We need to clean up, not double down on coal in this state.
With Fisk closing at the end of this year, there is not a ton of time for Chicago to address these issues. But frankly, I want to take some time to savor this success from the Clean Power Coalition, the neighborhood groups who have tirelessly pushed back on the plants for decades and our band of citizen lawyers who have joined together to force Midwest Generation to obey the law. Even as we pushed Chicago’s green advances in my time during the Daley Administration, the coal plants were a blot that needed to be cleaned up. My hat is off to all, including Daley’s successor Mayor Emanuel, who have at last managed to remove one of our town’s ugliest messes.