May 24, 2018
EPA Deal Marks Dramatic Shift Away From Dirty Coal Power in Chicago Area
By Michael Hawthorne
Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring back the days when coal power dominated the nation, his administration quietly settled a lawsuit this month that highlights how the lung-damaging, climate-changing source of electricity has largely disappeared from the Chicago area.
Six coal-fired power plants at issue in the nearly decade-old case have been shut down, cleaned up or converted to burn natural gas — dramatically improving air quality without affecting residential electric bills or the stability of the regional power grid.
All that remained was a federal lawsuit accusing former plant owners of evading clean air laws for years. The case lingered in federal courts until the current operator, New Jersey-based NRG, tentatively agreed this year to pay fines of $500,000 each to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Illinois.
The legal settlement, made official on May 10, adds the weight of a federal court order to ensure the shuttered coal plants stay closed and pollution-control equipment installed at the others is kept in place.
As the Trump administration rolls back environmental regulations and attempts to resurrect the coal industry, the NRG settlement is a reminder of economic, legal and political forces that began shifting the country away from the fossil fuel well before the president and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, took office.
It also is a remarkable victory for a small group of Will County watchdogs and their attorney from a nonprofit legal aid clinic, who kept the case alive after regional and national environmental organizations backed out as part of a separate settlement.
“People thought, or maybe they hoped, we would just go away,” said Ellen Meeks Rendulich, one of the organizers of a grass-roots group dubbed Citizens Against Ruining the Environment. “We didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted, but what’s coming out of those smokestacks now is nothing compared to what it used to be like.”
Normally a settlement of this magnitude would be trumpeted in news releases from the EPA and the Department of Justice. In this case, neither agency announced the resolution of an enforcement action initiated by the Obama administration, even though changes outlined in the government’s agreement with NRG have already had significant effects.
Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — pollution that forms smog, soot and acid rain — dropped by about 90 percent at the power plants between 2009 and 2017, according to a Tribune review of federal records. The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the fleet declined by about 75 percent during the period — equivalent to taking 5.5 million cars off the roads.
When combined with other coal-plant shutdowns in the state, the overhaul put Illinois on a fast track to meet targets in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, an Obama initiative to reduce climate change pollution that the Trump administration and coal companies are attempting to overturn.
The settlement with NRG “is really a capstone to a long fight for environmental justice,” said Keith Harley, the Chicago Legal Clinic attorney who represented the Will County group. Power companies warned that closing coal-fired plants would disrupt the smooth delivery of electricity, Harley said, but none of their ominous predictions came true.
“The lights are still on,” he said. “We still have a glut of electricity.”
Built by ComEd between the early 1900s and the 1960s, the coal plants were among dozens nationwide that started generating electricity before Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act. For years the plants were exempted from the toughest provisions of the law because utilities vowed they wouldn’t be running much longer.
A company called Midwest Generation bought the ComEd plants in 1999 and kept them running as a growing number of scientific studies found that coal plant pollution triggers asthma attacks, causes heart disease and shaves years off of lives. Unlike newer power plants, the ComEd/Midwest Generation facilities were not equipped with advanced pollution controls that sharply reduce lung-damaging soot and other harmful air pollution.
In 2010, a year after the EPA and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Midwest Generation, the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, estimated that pollution from one of the company’s coal plants in Romeoville had cost surrounding areas $187 million a year in hidden health costs.