Angela Smith is from the Southside of Peoria, Illinois, a city of around 100,000 located about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Like others in her neighborhood, she raised her kids—six of them, now in their late teens to mid-twenties—in the shadow of Bartonville’s E.D. Edwards coal-fired power plant. Also like others, Smith suffers from respiratory problems she believes are linked to the plant’s decades of pollution. Over the years, her breathing issues got so bad that they triggered seizures. In addition to complicating her daily activities, Smith, a single mother, says these health problems caused her to miss out on critical employment opportunities.
So in November 2019, when she learned of the plant’s upcoming closure, Smith was relieved. But that was not the only good news. In February, she got word that Jubilee Ministries, the largely volunteer nonprofit where she works as an office manager and job coach, would benefit too. The organization is one of several Peoria-based nonprofits slated to receive some of the funds allocated for job training as part of the legal settlement agreement between the Vistra Energy subsidiary that owns and operates the plant and the environmental and public health groups, including NRDC, that sued the plant’s owners in 2013.
“We're looking forward to helping the people who will be laid off when the plant closes,” Smith says. But many of Jubilee’s clients have never seen Edwards from the inside; rather, “most are from the south end where the plant is, and a lot of them are ex-offenders and felons,” she adds. “Our thing is to help them get back on track,” including help with transportation and work-related supplies and clothing. The group also provides family support programs. “We didn't have opportunities or support like this when I was growing up and raising my children,” she says.
The settlement agreement—which specifies that E.D. Edwards will close by the end of 2022 (subject to regulatory approval) and will also provide $8.6 million in funding for projects to benefit the greater Peoria region—is one of the first of its kind in the United States to support a just transition away from coal and toward a clean energy economy. As such, it has become a model for other communities where aging power plants are shuttering and taking a toll on local livelihoods.
“There are economic consequences to the plant closing, and I'm glad we were able to look at the issue a little bit more holistically in the context of settlement,” says NRDC senior attorney Selena Kyle, who served as lead counsel in the remedy and settlement phase of the case.
Kyle and the other advocates who fought for a just transition for the Peoria community also had people like Smith in mind. Pollution from the Edwards plant has negatively impacted residents of certain areas, like the Southside, more than others. The plaintiffs sought out proposals for grants from the settlement funds that would uplift these communities, stating that their “intent is to see benefits flow to displaced Edwards plant employees as well as segments of the community most harmed by the Edwards plant’s air pollution, the changing climate, and the decades of socioeconomic and racial injustice.”
Pollution from the 60-year-old, deteriorating coal plant has been particularly egregious. Over the years, maintenance fell through the cracks. Between April 2008 and June 2014 alone, the plant racked up 2,949 violations of its permit limits on opacity—an indicator of particulate matter emissions that are linked to respiratory issues, cardiac disease, and other problems.
“The level of violations appeared to reflect an attitude that plants could do this with impunity. We found that very problematic,” says Ann Alexander, a senior attorney who served as the lead counsel during the initial phase of the Clean Air Act citizen suit brought by NRDC, Sierra Club, and the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association. “We can understand why operators of coal plants would want to cut corners,” she notes. After all, these dirty energy businesses are increasingly a losing proposition. However, for regulators, “that makes it all the more important to require adherence to permit requirements and ensure that the costs of operating a coal plant are absorbed by the operator and not by the community that has to deal with the pollution.”
After years of the liability phase of the case, including a defeated motion to dismiss the case by the defendant, U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade found in 2016 that the Edwards plant had indeed violated its opacity and particulate matter limits thousands of times. “It really was a victory not only in this case but in the larger sense for the rule of law,” Alexander says.
That milestone set in motion a three-year remedy phase and the eventual approval of the settlement on November 13, 2019, by Judge McDade.
The ensuing allocation of the $8.6 million, including $6.88 million to be used for public health or environmental projects that benefit the greater Peoria area and $1.72 million for projects that provide funding for job-training programs at Peoria-area schools and organizations, was a community-informed process. The judge’s decision set off a 90-day period to gather proposals from the community on how to award the funds. Three local partner groups—the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance, Illinois People’s Action, and the Peoria NAACP chapter—joined an advisory team that considered funding proposals and helped advise NRDC and its coplaintiffs’ final funding decisions.
“The community knows what the community needs, and everything we need to promote positive change in Peoria is in Peoria,” says Nia McFarland-Drye of the Peoria NAACP about the process. “Many of the advising community groups have been involved in environmental justice for a very long time; they know what the impact looks like in underserved areas from micro to macro levels.”
McFarland-Drye adds that the money awarded to low-profile organizations like Jubilee Ministries—which “had never applied for a grant before,” she says—can help raise awareness of and future support for more grants and help establish new programs. The $144,200 the group was awarded will significantly expand the Jubilee jobs program. And for others like it in the area, she adds, “I hope it will be a message that it is possible to receive funding, no matter how small your organization is.”
Another relatively small grant of $25,000 will go a long way for the nonprofit Soulside Healing Arts, which leads a community yoga program. Soulside partners with Peoria-area schools and service agencies to provide pay-as-you-wish yoga classes by trauma-certified instructors. The funds will be used to recruit, train, and certify at least two new instructors either from the communities most affected by pollution from the Edwards plant or who have been impacted in other ways by socioeconomic and racial injustice. “This is really validating for our work and it’s going to boost what we’re able to do,” says executive director Hannah Ramlo, who founded the studio less than two years ago. “The need is very present. There is so much trauma in these areas of concern.”
Meanwhile, as part of the $6.88 million for public health or environmental projects, a grant of $96,550 to the city of Peoria will fund the purchase and installation of solar panels on a new fire station to be built on Peoria’s Southside. “The immediate impact is not just on-site, where this public building is going to be,” says Anthony Corso, the city’s chief innovation officer, “but also in the entire community around it.” He and other local leaders remain hopeful that despite the city’s dirty energy legacy, its future holds a cleaner path forward, and one that’s healthier for all. Even that solar-powered fire station alone, he says “is showcasing what can be done when we make the leap from fossil fuels to renewables.”
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