Illinois

Energy Wire: Howard Lauds Renewable Energy Victories In Illinois Legislation

EnergyWire

Exelon Nuclear Plants Get Bailout in Sweeping Energy Bill
December 2, 2016
By Jeffrey Tomich

Years of sagging energy prices and eroding electricity demand pushed two Illinois nuclear plants to the brink of closure. A procedural assist in the final hours of the legislative calendar spared the plants from a knockout blow.

In the end, lawmakers approved the most significant rewrite of state energy policy in two decades. Among other things, it authorizes up to $2.4 billion in subsidies over the next decade to keep Exelon Corp.’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants running.

The bill, which will also trigger billions of dollars for wind, solar and energy efficiency, was helped by a last-minute maneuver removing the effective date. The seemingly innocuous change lowered the threshold for passage in the House, where it ultimately passed by just three votes.

The “Future Energy Jobs Bill” now goes to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), who issued a statement late yesterday evening indicating he’ll sign it.

“This legislation will save thousands of jobs. It protects ratepayers, through guaranteed caps, from large rate increases in years to come. It also ensures taxpayers are not on the hook to keep the power plants open and online,” Rauner said in a statement.

The stakes in the battle over S.B. 2814 were high, especially for Chicago-based Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear operator, which has been pushing for state aid for money-losing nuclear plants for the past two years (EnergyWire, June 3). The company threatened to take “irreversible” steps to shut down the plants if the Legislature didn’t pass the bill yesterday.

It’s also a win for clean energy advocates. The measure strengthens the state’s energy efficiency standard and includes a fix for Illinois’ long-broken renewable standard. Specifically, it requires development of enough new wind and solar energy to power 1 million homes by 2030.

Exelon went head-to-head with a coalition of wind and solar groups for much of the past two years over the future of Illinois’ energy mix (EnergyWire, Feb. 27, 2015). The state’s largest energy company and green groups finally reached a compromise last week.

“This forward-looking energy policy levels the playing field and values all carbon-free energy equally, positions Illinois as a national leader in advancing clean energy, and will provide a major boost to the Illinois economy,” Exelon’s chief executive, Chris Crane, said in a statement.

For opponents, including the state’s biggest energy users, the outcome is a setback.

Manufacturers, chemical plants and owners of Chicago skyscrapers repeatedly warned legislators that the bill will increase electric costs, undoing the benefits of competition that grew from deregulation in the late 1990s.

“Beware when you hear Exelon telling you what’s good for the customers,” an official from the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago told a Senate committee in a hearing Wednesday. “We’re the customers.”

Power plant owner Dynegy Inc., which has shut down 20 percent of the generating capacity in downstate Illinois in the past six months, also lobbied hard to kill the bill in the final days.

Dynegy supported it until last week, when the sponsor pulled a convoluted provision that would have generated millions of dollars in additional capacity payments for the Houston-based company’s coal plants (EnergyWire, Nov. 23).

A company spokesman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment last night.

Rates, Jobs at Issue

In the end, for legislators who voted on the bill yesterday evening, arguments centered on bill’s impact on electric rates and the state’s economy. And both sides came armed with conflicting data and studies as supporting evidence.

Rep. Bill Mitchell (R), whose district includes the 1,046-megawatt Clinton nuclear plant northeast of Springfield pleaded with lawmakers to spare jobs and taxes that are vital to the area.

Not only the 800 jobs at the plant but also those at nearby schools and businesses that depend on the plant were in jeopardy.

“The people of DeWitt County have been put through hell for the last six months wondering if they’ll have a job,” he said.

Opponents made equally passionate pleas to not ram through a massive, complex bill in the final hours while the state faces so many other pressing needs.

Rep. Mark Batinick (R) said the aid for Exelon was unnecessary because Illinois is a significant exporter of electricity.

“We’re going to subsidize a company so that it can sell its power out of state?” he said. “That’s supposed to be more important than a budget, than social services, than education?”

Bill supporters cited studies by Illinois agencies and another by Brattle Group consultants suggesting that Illinois electricity rates would go up if the nuclear plants shut down prematurely. Rauner pressed for rate caps for all classes of utility customers as a condition for his approval.

Including the energy savings from huge investments in energy efficiency that would be unleashed, consumers would actually see a net savings in energy costs in the long run, according to proponents including the Citizens Utility Board, a utility watchdog group.

St. Louis-based Ameren, a distribution utility that serves the southern half of Illinois, agreed and said its customers would save money even factoring in the cost of the nuclear subsidies.

Other consumer advocates, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) and AARP, weren’t convinced. Both fought the bill until the end and raised questions about whether the last-minute rate caps would protect all customers equally.

“We want to gamble on 50-plus lobbyists who spend a lot of money who tell us if we don’t do something, the sky’s going to fall? The sky is not falling, and rates are not guaranteed to go up,” said state Sen. Kyle McCarter (R).

State Sen. Chapin Rose (R), the bill’s lead sponsor in the state Senate, asserted that allowing the Exelon plants to close was the bigger risk. “How would you define losing 20 percent of the power on your grid? That’s a gamble,” he said.

Renewables, Efficiency Score Wins

Almost overshadowed by the drama around Exelon’s nuclear plants was the effect the bill will have on renewable energy development and energy efficiency in Illinois.

Illinois’ 25 percent renewable standard has been broken for years because of an unintended conflict in state law. S.B. 2814 resolves the conflict so the standard can be funded. It also specifically requires development of 1,300 megawatts of new wind and 300 MW of solar — a mix of utility-scale, community and rooftop projects.

The bill also strengthens Illinois’ energy efficiency standard, requiring Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison to reduce electricity usage in its service area by 21.5 percent by 2030. Ameren will be required to cut usage in its mostly rural downstate territory by 13 percent.

“This legislation should reenergize Illinois’ solar energy and wind power development bringing investments and cleaner air and water,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, in a statement.

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BREAKING: ELPC Statement on Illinois Energy Legislation

Illinois Energy Legislation Boosts Renewable Energy
ELPC’s Work to Protect Consumers Continues

SPRINGFIELD – After more than two years of negotiations, the Illinois General Assembly voted Thursday on a measure that should significantly improve and expand renewable energy in Illinois by modernizing the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

“This legislation should reenergize Illinois’ solar energy and wind power development bringing investments and cleaner air and water,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Growing Illinois’ renewable energy resources is good for job creation, good for economic growth and good for the environment.”

ELPC led a coalition of environmental, consumer advocacy, low-income, faith, public health groups and solar energy businesses in negotiating improvements to the state’s broken RPS. The modernized RPS creates new programs for community solar, promotes redevelopment of brownfields as solar brightfields, spurs solar projects in lower-income communities, and should also help ramp-up wind development. These policies will expand access to renewable energy to people throughout the state. The RPS maintains existing rate caps.

ELPC continues to be concerned about large consumer subsidies provided in the legislation for two Exelon nuclear power plants which the company executives had slated for closure because they are uneconomic in the competitive power market.

ELPC is pleased with the environmentally beneficial provisions in this energy legislation that should result in significant development of new wind power and solar energy projects in Illinois, spur millions of dollars of economic development, and provide for a cleaner environment.

During hundreds of hours of bill negotiations, ELPC partnered with the Clean Jobs Coalition to advance strong clean energy legislation. Additionally we worked with public officials, consumer advocates, renewable energy developers and low-income grassroots groups to strike several controversial provisions from the bill. These include so-called “demand charges,” which would have fundamentally changed how customers are charged for electricity.

“This bill will expand new solar energy and wind power for Illinois instead of creating new barriers through unfair demand charges and proposed weakening of fair net metering compensation for consumers with solar energy panels,” added Learner.

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Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Susan Mudd warns of air pollution dangers to Little Village residents from nearby planned factory expansions

ChicagoTribune

Expansion of Little Village Mayonnaise Factory Raises Pollution Fears
November 28, 2016
By Mary Wisniewski

The news of a factory expansion on the city’s West Side is generally a cause for rejoicing — more manufacturing means more jobs in an area that could use them.

But environmental advocates are concerned that the planned expansion of the Hellmann’s mayonnaise factory in the Little Village neighborhood will bring heavy truck traffic near an elementary school, exposing children to harmful diesel fumes.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization wants Unilever, parent company of Hellman’s maker Best Foods, to commit to using trucks fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) or electricity, which produce lower carbon monoxide emissions, rather than diesel.

“We are already overburdened with air pollution,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of LVEJO, who said 500 to 900 additional trucks will come to the new facility daily. “This is going to exacerbate the situation.”

Construction for the new single-story mayo factory and distribution center on a vacant site near 28th Street and Kilbourn Avenue will start early next year, according to Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who has said the facility may need as many as 60 new workers. Site preparation for the facility, an expansion to an existing factory, is going on this fall, Munoz said.

The site is near Zapata Elementary Academy at 2728 S. Kostner Ave. Wasserman said Unilever has donated $20 million to upgrade the school —– but the upgrades do not address air quality concerns.

Munoz said trucks for the facility would travel on Cicero Avenue and not come through the neighborhood. But Wasserman said that her organization wants the company to promise, in writing, to keep trucks off residential streets.

A spokesperson for Unilever, parent company for such well-known brands as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Lipton tea, said in an email that the project will require trucks to enter and exit from the main commercial road. The company also said it is increasing its use of natural gas trucks and has made the Kilbourn Avenue plant “a priority” for their use.

Wasserman said she would like to eventually see 100 percent of the trucks use natural gas or electricity.

With its industrial base and proximity to truck-heavy corridors like I-55, Pulaski Road and Cicero and Western avenues, Little Village has had a history of air quality concerns. The

Crawford and Fisk coal-burning electric plants, located in Little Village and Pilsen, respectively, and shuttered in 2012, were blamed for contributing to asthma and other respiratory health problems in the region.

“They fight and fight to get rid of these old power plants and then there’s another thing that comes in,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Mudd said the center also is concerned about the possible construction of a distribution warehouse in the neighborhood at 31st Street and Kedzie Avenue, which could also require heavy truck traffic.

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Greenwire: ELPC’s Dexter Says EPA’s Coal Ash Pond Hazard Disclosures Good But Don’t Go Far Enough

Greenwire

Coal Ash: Utility Filings Reveal Dump Conditions, EPA Compliance Plans
November 23, 2016
By Sean Reilly

When Dynegy Inc. released information about a coal ash storage pond at its Joppa, Ill., power plant, the resulting picture was unsettling: The pond had a “high hazard” ranking, meaning people could die in the event of a dike failure.

Papers submitted by the utility showed it also barely cleared a safety assessment and had no liner to protect groundwater.

But from a disclosure standpoint, the filings — required by U.S. EPA to be made public this month — represented a noteworthy development for watchdogs.

“It’s interesting to be able to get a glimpse into what has been a black box,” said Jessica Dexter, a staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group that favors stricter oversight of coal ash.

Across the country, the newly released records are casting fresh light on the condition of hundreds of coal ash ponds and showing what utilities intend to do with the vast quantities of waste left over from coal-fired electricity generation.

In its disposal rule published last year, EPA gave companies two closure options: leaving the coal ash in place — after “dewatering” the ponds and capping the residue — or excavating the ash and possibly sending it to a landfill.

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The Rock River Times: ELPC’s Dexter Urges EPA to Uphold Clean Water Act

The Rock River Times

Illinois, Other Miss. River States Failing to Address Pollution Worries: Report
November 23, 2016

The Mississippi River Collaborative (MRC) today released a report that implores the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take specific actions to clean up nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Illinois and nine other states, because those states have failed to make sufficient pollution reductions. The ten states that are the focus of the report all border the Mississippi River and send their pollution to the river and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

The report, “Decades of Delay,” was prepared by MRC, a partnership of 13 environmental and legal groups, and assesses state progress in reducing the pollution that threatens drinking water supplies for millions of Americans and causes the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

The report finds that nitrogen and phosphorus continue to pose serious threats to Illinois waters, interfering with the public’s use and enjoyment, and threatening the health of people and aquatic life. Illinois lakes have been especially devastated by phosphorus pollution.

“EPA’s hands-off approach is simply not working in Illinois. Every summer our lakes and beaches are fouled by noxious, smelly and sometimes toxic algal blooms,” said Kim Knowles, Staff Attorney at Prairie Rivers Network.  “The state lacks a rigorous program for addressing this scourge.”

The report suggests six specific steps EPA can take to protect human health and water quality in state waters.  Recommendations include setting numeric limits of allowable nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters, assessing more waterways to determine the full extent and impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and making sure states develop rigorous plans for reducing pollution and for procuring the funding needed to address this significant problem.

“For 20 years, we have been told the EPA and the states would address the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that fouls our rivers and lakes and perpetuates the Gulf Dead Zone,” said Jessica Dexter, Staff Attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center, an MRC member. “This report demonstrates the falsity of that claim. EPA should use the tools outlined in the report to uphold the Clean Water Act and get us on a path to clean rivers and streams.”

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Scientific American: ELPC’s Learner Weighs in on Coal and Energy Legislation in Illinois

Scientific American

Will the Rust Belt Stick with Coal Under Trump?
November 22, 2016
By Ben Storrow

Coal remains king in the Rust Belt. But whether the carbon-laden fuel retains its throne depends on state lawmakers in a handful of Midwestern capitals.

Illinois legislators are debating a bill that would provide subsidies to aging nuclear and coal plants. Ohio policymakers are fielding calls from utilities to guarantee a rate of return for their old coal facilities. And Michigan representatives are sorting through an energy package that will determine the future makeup of their state’s electric grid.

The state decisions come at a critical moment for U.S. energy policy. Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest means the United States is unlikely to implement the carbon caps on the power sector proposed under President Obama, which are the centerpiece of America’s participation in the Paris climate agreement.

Trump’s victory has added a new wrinkle to Rust Belt energy debates. In Illinois, Exelon Corp. had argued financial assistance for its nuclear plants was essential to meeting the state’s goals under the Clean Power Plan, U.S. EPA’s carbon-cutting regimen. Utility executives, testifying before Illinois lawmakers last week, acknowledged Trump’s victory complicated their position (EnergyWire, Nov. 17).

To the north in Michigan, some Republican lawmakers are calling for policymakers to apply the brakes on an energy package that was developed with the assumption the Clean Power Plan would be put into place. Supporters, who include Gov. Rick Snyder (R), dismiss those arguments. Michigan has witnessed a wave of coal plant closures this year and needs to focus on grid reliability, they say.

“Could some coal plants stay open longer as a result of the Clean Power Plan going away? Yes, I think that’s a possibility,” said Paul Patterson, a financial analyst who tracks the utility sector at Glenrock Associates LLC. “We will have to wait and see what the Trump administration comes up with, but also for what the individual states want to do.”

The decisions made by Midwestern lawmakers figure to be particularly important. The Rust Belt remains disproportionately reliant on coal to meet its electricity needs, meaning a further greening of the U.S. grid will depend to a great degree on state actions.

Michigan gets 46 percent of its power from coal. The fuel accounts for 59 percent of power generation in Ohio. In neighboring Indiana, that figure reaches as high as 75 percent. Nationally, coal power represents about a third of total power production.

Debate over the Clean Power Plan obscures a more important trend, though, analysts said. Economics will be the main driver in deciding the future makeup of the Rust Belt’s power grid.

Electricity demand in the region is stagnating, in large part due to energy efficiency measures.

Natural gas plants are out-competing their coal counterparts. And renewables are fast approaching the point where they can displace coal-fired power, even without subsidies.

There is also this: Many Rust Belt coal plants are simply old.

Analysts predict the region’s electric grid will become less reliant on coal in the coming years, regardless of whether the Clean Power Plan is implemented. But how fast the transition occurs, and what fuels replace it, will depend to a great degree on what state policymakers decide.

“I don’t think the Clean Power Plan is the central story,” said Nachy Kanfer, deputy director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “I think the central story is how wholesale markets reorganize themselves to survive in an era of persistently low wholesale power prices and a market where consumers are persistently demanding cleaner alternatives.”

A Brownish-Green ‘Christmas Tree’ Bill in Ill.

Illinois lawmakers have proposed expanding the state’s ability to procure electrons from coal plants in the southern part of the state (EnergyWire, Nov. 16). The provision was largely aimed at winning the support of coal-reliant utilities, like Dynegy Inc., which might have objected to the bill’s financial support for Exelon’s nuclear facilities. But it has attracted a wide array of opposition from environmentalists, who object to the coal facilities’ emissions, and business groups, which are against paying more to keep old plants online.

To complicate matters further, the legislation also contains measures aimed at enticing greens.

It calls on Commonwealth Edison Co., which serves the Chicago area, to cut electricity demand 23 percent by 2030 through efficiency measures. The bill would also boost the state’s renewable energy standard, requiring 25 percent of Illinois power to come from low-carbon sources by 2025.

“Right now, the bill is a Christmas tree that badly needs some pruning,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.

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Alton Telegraph: ELPC’s Dexter says EPA Should Follow Coalition Recommendations to Clean Up Rivers & Streams

Alton-Telegraph-LogoReport: Illinois Among States Failing to Manage Nitrogen and Phosphorous Pollution
November 18, 2016
By Alton Telegraph

ALTON — The Mississippi River Collaborative (MRC) today released a report that implores the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take specific actions to clean up nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Illinois and nine other states, because those states have failed to make sufficient pollution reductions.

The ten states that are the focus of the report all border the Mississippi River and send their pollution to the river and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

The report, “Decades of Delay,” was prepared by MRC, a partnership of 13 environmental and legal groups, and assesses state progress in reducing the pollution that threatens drinking water supplies for millions of Americans and causes the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

The report finds that nitrogen and phosphorus continue to pose serious threats to Illinois waters, interfering with the public’s use and enjoyment, and threatening the health of people and aquatic life. Illinois lakes have been especially devastated by phosphorus pollution.

“EPA’s hands-off approach is simply not working in Illinois. Every summer our lakes and beaches are fouled by noxious, smelly and sometimes toxic algal blooms,” said Kim Knowles, staff attorney at Prairie Rivers Network. “The state lacks a rigorous program for addressing this scourge.”

The report suggests six specific steps EPA can take to protect human health and water quality in state waters. Recommendations include setting numeric limits of allowable nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters, assessing more waterways to determine the full extent and impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and making sure states develop rigorous plans for reducing pollution and for procuring the funding needed to address this significant problem.

“For 20 years, we have been told the EPA and the states would address the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that fouls our rivers and lakes and perpetuates the Gulf Dead Zone,” said Jessica Dexter, staff attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center, an MRC member. “This report demonstrates the falsity of that claim. EPA should use the tools outlined in the report to uphold the Clean Water Act and get us on a path to clean rivers and streams.”

Read the article here.

 

Press Release: New Report Reveals Illinois & Other States Failing to Manage Nitrogen & Phosphorus Pollution in our Waterways, Mississippi River

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 17, 2016

Contact: Judith Nemes, Environmental Law & Policy Center
JNemes@elpc.org 312-795-3706

Kim Knowles, Prairie Rivers Network
KKnowles@prairierivers.org 314-341-1641

New Report Reveals Illinois and Other States Failing to Manage Nitrogen & Phosphorus Pollution in our Waterways
Environmental Coalition Calls on EPA to Step Up Efforts to Reduce Nutrient Pollution in Mississippi River

Mississippi River – The Mississippi River Collaborative (MRC) today released a report that implores the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take specific actions to clean up nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Illinois and nine other states, because those states have failed to make sufficient pollution reductions. The 10 states included in the report all border the Mississippi River and send their pollution to the river and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

The report, “Decades of Delay,” was prepared by MRC, a partnership of 13 environmental and legal groups, and assesses state progress in reducing the pollution that threatens drinking water supplies for millions of Americans and causes the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

The report finds that nitrogen and phosphorus continue to pose serious threats to Illinois waters, interfering with the public’s use and enjoyment, and threatening the health of people and aquatic life. Illinois lakes have been especially devastated by phosphorus pollution.

“EPA’s hands-off approach is simply not working in Illinois. Every summer our lakes and beaches are fouled by noxious, smelly and sometimes toxic algal blooms,” said Kim Knowles, Staff Attorney at Prairie Rivers Network. “The state lacks a rigorous program for addressing this scourge.”

“For 20 years, we have been told the EPA and the states would address the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that fouls our rivers and lakes and perpetuates the Gulf Dead Zone,” said Jessica Dexter, Staff Attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center, an MRC member. “This report demonstrates the falsity of that claim. EPA should use the tools outlined in the report to uphold the Clean Water Act and get us on a path to clean rivers and streams.”

The report suggests six specific steps EPA can take to protect human health and water quality in state waters. Recommendations include setting numeric limits of allowable nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters, assessing more waterways to determine the full extent and impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and making sure states develop rigorous plans for reducing pollution and for procuring the funding needed to address this significant problem.

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Decades of Delay Executive Summary
Decades of Delay Full Report

Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Learner Supports IL Pollution Lawsuit Against VW, Says Everyone is Harmed

The Chicago Tribune

Illinois forcing Volkswagen to clean up its act

Nov. 14, 2016
By Robert Reed

Even those who never owned a Volkswagen car could benefit from the beleaguered company’s desperate need to make “dieselgate,” a moniker for its massive auto emissions scandal, fade in the rearview mirror.

But that’s not going to happen until the German automaker makes peace with Illinois and a bunch of other ticked-off states suing the company for allegedly fouling the environment.

Some may see these lawsuits as blatantly trying to squeeze extra cash from a staggering Volkswagen, which admitted using software designed to cheat on emissions testing. I’d disagree, mainly because no automaker, or company for that matter, should go unchallenged for allegedly violating a bedrock environmental law in such an admittedly blatant manner. It’s not fair to the public or to other businesses that must follow the rules.

This week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan smacked Volkswagen with a lawsuit claiming the automaker violated the state’s pollution protection rules. Madigan’s office wants the company to pay some form of damages, as do 11 other states also suing Volkswagen on similar grounds.

The legal fallout is linked to the company’s admission last year that about 500,000 of its VWs and Audis with 2-liter, four-cylinder diesel engines were programmed to cheat on government emissions tests. Since then, Volkswagen’s focus has been on making amends with its disgusted car buyers, settling with irate consumer fraud regulators and quelling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now the saga is entering a new chapter: Volkswagen is dealing with states saying the very air their communities breathe was compromised by the emissions-rigging scheme.

“Not only were consumers harmed by buying cars that were less than advertised; the public as a whole has suffered because there’s more pollution,” says Howard Learner , executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based watchdog and advocacy group.

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Illinois Times: ELPC’s Learner Says Federal Court Ruling on Illiana Should Finally End Proposed Toll Road

Illinois-Times-Logo

End of the Road for Illiana?
Controversial Toll Road Loses Second Court Battle
November 10, 2016
By Patrick Yeagle

A federal court struck down last week an environmental study used to justify a new tollway in northern Illinois.

It’s the second such loss in court for the controversial project, which was already suspended but still clings to life.

The Illiana Expressway is a proposed 50-mile, east-west toll road which would connect Interstate 55 south of Chicago to Interstate 65 in northwestern Indiana. The project is intended to relieve congestion on Interstate 80, 15 miles to the north.

Controversial from the start, the Illiana proposal has long been a priority for the Illinois Department of Transportation. Gov. Bruce Rauner says Illinois won’t spend more money on the project, but opponents say IDOT has continued to pursue it anyway.

The controversy is twofold: whether the road is actually needed and what effect it may have on Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a nearby national nature preserve.

IDOT has projected population growth of more than 170 percent by 2040 in the area surrounding the proposed road, but that estimate is contradicted by two other planning agencies which control federal funding in that area.

Meanwhile, the potential environmental effect of the project was the basis for a lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Midewin Heritage Association, the Illinois Sierra Club and environmental group Openlands. The groups sued IDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, saying the required environmental impact statement used to justify the project was flawed.

A federal court agreed in June 2015, ruling that the study overestimated the consequences of not building the expressway and failed to adequately consider the potential effects on the surrounding area.

While that lawsuit was pending, IDOT and the FHA continued pursuing the project, releasing a second “tier” of the environmental study which built on the first. On Oct. 31, another federal judge ruled that the second tier was invalid because it relied on a first tier which had already been found faulty.

Just before the first federal court decision in June 2015, Rauner vetoed funding for the project, saying that because of the “current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time.” A spokeswoman for Rauner referred a reporter to IDOT.

Still, IDOT continued to defend the environmental study in court, filing a document in October 2015 saying IDOT and its counterpart in Indiana would continue to revise the study.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, calls Illiana a “fiscal folly” which should have died long ago. ELPC represented the environmental groups for free in the lawsuit against the state.

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