Detroit Free Press: S.S. Badger cleared for sailing by EPA

Two years after striking a deal to keep the last coal-fired ship on the Great Lakes operating, federal regulators this week declared the S.S. Badger in compliance with an order that it stop dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan, clearing it for a new sailing season beginning today.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said an inspection of the Badger — a historic carferry which makes about 450 trips between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis., during a 6-month season each year — showed it had “taken all the steps necessary” to stop discharging coal ash into the lake.

“Victory!” said a statement today by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which had pressured the government to address the hundreds of tons of coal ash the 63-year-old Badger was dumping into Lake Michigan each year. “All bad things should come to an end, and this water pollution is. … Step-by-step, our Great Lakes are getting cleaner.”

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Victory! No More SS Badger Toxic Coal Ash Dumping into Lake Michigan

Victory!  Today, the SS Badger car ferry is scheduled to go across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, WI to Ludington, MI with a new coal ash containment system in place. All bad things should come to an end, and this water pollution is.  This summer, the SS Badger will not be dumping nearly 1,000,000 pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan.  Step-by-step, our Great Lakes are getting cleaner.

This is a significant step in the right direction for reducing toxic pollution of the Great Lakes. It reaffirms the principle that no business should be permitted to use the Great Lakes as a dumping ground for toxics.

This victory follows a strong campaign led by the Environmental Law & Policy Center with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and our good partner colleagues at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and others.

The 60-year-old SS Badger is the last coal-burning ship on the Great Lakes. For too many years, the resulting coal ash – containing toxic materials – has been discharged into Lake Michigan. Pressure from ELPC, our allies and the public led to an action by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that resulted in a binding consent decree requiring SS Badger operators to capture and then lawfully dispose of the toxic coal ash without dumping any into Lake Michigan.

Following the consent decree, SS Badger operators installed new digital combustion controls that enable the ship to run more efficiently, burning about 15% less coal on its trips from Manitowoc, WI to Ludington, MI.  They also installed a new retention system that moves the coal ash along a conveyor belt between the ship’s boilers and four containment bins. Those bins are later moved to an appropriate land-based site, possibly for re-sale as a cement filler. This kind of “encapsulated reuse” is one of the better scenarios for handling toxic coal ash.

This has been tough sledding. Working together, we have brought to an end the SS Badger’s dumping of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan.

Chicago Tribune: Environmentalists seek to overturn federal approval of Illiana toll road

Environmentalists want the federal government to overturn its decision to approve the Illiana toll road project, in light of new and “compelling” evidence, they said.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Midewin Heritage Association, Sierra Club and a dozen others sent a letter with 40 pages of documentation to the Federal Highway Administration, citing four main reasons it should “withdraw and reconsider” its Record of Decision issued in December.

The decision was “based on outdated information,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We have four solid arguments that stand on their own and in combination as to why they should reconsider this decision in a serious and respectful way.”

Learner admitted it is “not par for the course” for the federal agency to reconsider a decision, “but not much about Illiana is par for the course,” he said. “Rarely are they presented with facts like this.”

Their four reasons include substantial negative impacts on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, exaggerated population forecasts, lack of viable financing, and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s suspension of the project — all of which were not realized when the Federal Highway Administration issued its record of decision in December.

The U.S. Forest Service, which operates Midewin, sent a letter in March and again this month to the highway administration, clarifying its position and stating that construction of the Illiana would result in “irreparable injury to grassland bird habitat at Midewin.”

The proposed 50-mile toll road, from Interstate 55 in Wilmington to I-65 in Lowell, Indiana, would run along the southern edge of the restored prairie.

“I do not agree with the (highway administration) view that the Illiana ‘will not substantially impair’ Midewin,” wrote Wade Spang, prairie supervisor at Midewin.

Secondly, the group’s letter cited recent evidence that the Illinois Department of Transportation never disclosed a report last year from Fitch Ratings, a major bond rating agency, that it would not give the state an investment grade rating for bonds for the Illiana, indicating that the project had a high risk of default through a private-public partnership.

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Chicago Tribune Editorial: Illiana findings disappoint, then disappear

Illinois taxpayers spent $112,500 last year for a study to determine whether the proposed Illiana toll road would qualify for a key federal construction loan. But then-Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t get the answer he was looking for, and the information ended up in a drawer, or a wastebasket, or something.

This came to light thanks to reporting from Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business.  Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Hinz obtained a copy of a contract under which Fitch Ratings would be paid up to $125,000 to conduct the review, which was done in the spring of 2014.

Officials at the Illinois Finance Authority told Hinz that the finding was negative and that Fitch had submitted a bill for $112,500.

So hey, let’s see what Fitch had to say about the Illiana, a project regional planners have already warned would require hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Sorry, folks. The Illinois Department of Transportation says it never got anything on paper. The analysis “was provided verbally,” an agency spokesman said, and IDOT moved on to researching other financing options without requesting any documentation. Clearly, the Illiana’s cheerleaders had already heard more than they wanted.

There are plenty of other people, though, who would like to know how Fitch arrived at its conclusion. The rating company’s reasoning and the numbers behind it would have been of great interest, for example, to members of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board when it voted in September on a four-year update to the region’s master plan.

A year earlier, the CMAP board had voted not to add the Illiana to its priority list of projects vying for federal transportation dollars, but it was overruled by a policy committee chaired by Quinn’s IDOT secretary.

Some board members wanted to reverse that decision when it came time to vote on the four-year update. Once again, the policy committee bigfooted the CMAP board. Nobody confessed that IDOT’s financing plan for the Illiana had recently been shot down by the Fitch study.

The Illiana has never made sense financially. A joint project of the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation, the proposed 50-mile toll road would connect I-55 in Will County with I-65 in Lake County, Ind. To appeal to Southland voters, Quinn pitched it as an economic engine that would drive development and create thousands of jobs.

The Illiana is meant to provide an alternative for the trucks now clogging I-80. But they’d have to detour 10 miles out of their way and pay tolls of $50 or more.

It’s billed as a public-private partnership, but investors balked at the risk. So the states agreed to a plan under which the private vendor would get paid regardless of how much traffic (or toll revenue) the road generates. Who’d make up the difference? Taxpayers.

The CMAP staff’s 2013 analysis warned that taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $1.1 billion over 35 years. It also said the advertised economic benefits were “unsubstantiated.”

IDOT insisted the numbers would work but never showed its math, saying that to do so would compromise negotiations with the still-unnamed private partner.

But IDOT was counting on a low-cost loan available under the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA. That’s the loan Fitch Ratings said likely would not fly.

Why not? IDOT’s spokesman would say only that it was based on “the state’s overall financial situation.” That’s all he knows. There’s nothing in writing.

And that’s too bad, because you know who else might like to see the numbers behind that decision? Gov. Bruce Rauner. Because for some reason, Rauner hasn’t yet driven a stake through the heart of this moneysucking loser of a project.

IDOT spent $40 million on planning for the Illiana before the 2013 CMAP vote, which authorized another $80 million for engineering and land acquisition. Last year, IDOT signed an agreement committing Illinois taxpayers to “a minimum” of $250 million upfront to help that private partner build the toll road.

When Quinn lost the election, we thought Rauner would quickly stop wasting money on this project. He’s still thinking about it.

Maybe the research underlying that Fitch finding would persuade Rauner that it’s time for Illinois to cut its losses. It’s too bad there’s nothing to show him except that $112,500 invoice.

WBEZ: Great Lakes Pollution Symposium

Last August a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie temporarily shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water source leaving questions about the long term viability of that source of water for about 400,000 people. This was fueled not only by warm temperatures but nutrient rich runoff. Nutrient pollution has recently been connected to adverse impacts for ecological and economic systems across the Great Lakes Region. A two-day symposium in Chicago is examining the current state of nutrient management in the Great Lakes, what policies are working and how stakeholders can work towards solutions. Aquatic Ecologist Nancy Tuchman and Gail Hesse of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission sift through some of these issues.

Toledo Blade: EPA official notes planes scan for farm violations

CHICAGO — Note to corporate agriculture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has inspectors in the sky looking down at you.

Susan Hedman, the EPA’s Midwest regional administrator, said Thursday night at a Great Lakes conference her agency has had inspectors in small planes the last three years looking for manure-management violations by large livestock operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Ms. Hedman declined to provide specifics, saying the occasional flyovers are an enforcement tool. But she said the federal EPA has found it useful in taking legal action against some CAFOs with large manure releases, and sees expansion potential. The surveillance is not spying: The agriculture industry is notified in advance when the agency will be flying in the Great Lakes region, she said.

“That’s a very good use of inspector time,” Ms. Hedman told The Blade following her presentation.

The event, a two-day Great Lakes symposium sponsored by Chicago’s Environmental Law & Policy Center, drew a large Ohio contingent and put last August’s algae-induced Toledo water crisis at center stage. It concluded Friday.

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Crain’s Chicago Business: The secret Illiana report

The stonewalling continues on my report yesterday that the Quinn administration commissioned—but never disclosed—a report that undermined its claims that the proposed Illiana Expressway was financially viable.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation now confirms that Fitch Ratings was retained by the state to review Illiana finances last year and concluded that the plan “could not receive an investment grade rating.” The spokesman also again said that the analysis was “provided verbally” to IDOT and its financial advisers.

But that’s about all he’s saying.

Who got the verbal report? No answer.

How long was it? Were there any supporting documents? No answer.

That, says state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, is “outrageous.”

“I told IDOT I want it in writing,” Franks continued in an email. “No one would pay $112,000 for an oral report in the real world. Only in government apparently.”

Amen. But IDOT adds that it continues to review its financial options.


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Crain’s Chicago Business: Secret state study dinged Illiana finances

As Gov. Bruce Rauner considers whether to finally kill off the proposed Illiana expressway,this is a question he might want to get answered:

Why did ex-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, amid an all-out rush to stampede the controversial roadway through to final approval last year, commission a secret, $112,000 study of whether Illiana finances would be solid enough to quality for a big federal construction loan?

And why was that study, which apparently came back negative, never released—even now, with everybody in Springfield who knows passing the buck to someone else?

It’s a pretty sad story about the drive that would leave Illinois taxpayers liable for paying maybe $1 billion in subsidies.

Here’s what I’ve found out:

In late 2013, facing a bitter re-election campaign, Team Quinn went into overdrive to win approval of the Illiana, which would run between Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana. The road had its defenders, who argued it would provide a big boost to the booming warehouse industry in the south and southwest suburbs, but others considered it a boondoggle designed to get votes and political support.

In fall 2013, the staff of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, this region’s official gatekeeper for federal transportation cash, concluded that the road, which is supposed to be a public-private partnership, never would pay for itself. That would leave Illinois taxpayers on the hook in a major way.

But Quinn’s Department of Transportation strongly disputed that, saying in part that the project would qualify for a big, low-cost federal loan under the U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

CMAP’s board wasn’t swayed and opposed approving the road. But it was overruled by its policy committee, which greenlighted the project in October 2013.

Under CMAP rules, the project had to be approved again last year and it again was, after another big fight. The feds gave the road final environmental approval in September 2014.

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Champaign News-Gazette Editorial: Pull plug on the Illiana

Illinois’ habit of playing with fire involving its finances has to end.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has put a hold on many state spending programs because of the lack of funds. But there’s one project that he ought to kill outright — the proposed Illiana Expressway in Will County.

Most people have never heard of the Illiana, and that’s too bad. The more people who know about it, the more people there would be who would oppose it.

The Illiana is a proposed 47-mile toll road that would, according to current plans, run east from Interstate 55 near Wilmington, cross I-57 near Peotone into Indiana and connect with I-65 near Lowell. It would cost an estimated $1.3 billion and take up to four years to complete.

Illiana proponents say it would ease traffic congestion 15 miles north, at the intersection of I-80 and I-57. Theoretically, motorists would use the Illiana if they had an alternative option.

There are multiple problems with the Illiana, the most serious of which is that Illinois has severe financial problems that will only be exacerbated if this project goes forward.

Illinois already has an infrastructure inventory that it can’t maintain. A series of high-ranking state officials are seeking a gas-tax increase to meet that demand. To divert tax dollars to the building of a new road — even a toll road — would leave fewer resources to address current demands.

The Illiana has come close to passing the General Assembly in the past. For reasons known only to him, former Gov. Pat Quinn supported its construction, perhaps to win votes and financial backing from the labor union members drooling over the prospects of all the construction jobs it would create. In addition to organized labor, Joliet business interests want the cash injection into the local economy.

Gov. Rauner has been lukewarm to the idea while not ruling it out. It appeared to some that he signaled opposition when he appointed Randy Blankenhorn as the new secretary of the Transportation Department.

Blankenhorn, whose nomination has not yet been confirmed, was the head of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning when the agency’s professional staff estimated building the Illiana could cost taxpayers “from $440 million to potentially over $1 billion.”

The cost issue is directly related to the real issue — demand.

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State Journal-Register Editorial: Time for Rauner to scrap the Illiana Expressway

The proposed road-to-nowhere that was thought to be a chip in Pat Quinn’s bid to win re-election as governor has not died with the change in command in Illinois.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has put a hold on the Illiana Expressway, just as he’s put a hold on every other big project in Illinois. But he hasn’t killed Illiana, which is a surprise considering the austerity of his proposed budget and his commitment to doing away with wasteful spending.

And the Illiana is indeed wasteful. That’s not just our view. It’s what the experts from the staff of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning say.

The proposed 47-mile stretch of road 15 miles south of Interstate 80, which would connect Interstate 55 in Illinois to Interstate 65 in Indiana, could put Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $440 million to $1.1 billion over 35 years. That’s money that won’t be spent on existing roads and bridges, which are in sorry shape.

In addition to the financial risk, which the CMAP staff came up with using numbers provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, the staff analysis says IDOT’s projections about growth, impact on congestion and economic development all are inflated.

If that’s not bad enough, consider the cost of tolls. You would pay about $11 to drive that 47-mile stretch of corn and soybeans. That’s about four times more per mile than you pay on the Illinois Tollway system. Truck drivers would pay even more — perhaps $30 — but why would they when they can use I-80 for free instead?

By the way, Illiana is supposed to be a public-private partnership, but no private companies have expressed interest. The Illinois Tollway Authority wants nothing to do with it.

There are environmental concerns as well. The 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the largest piece of contiguous open space in northeastern Illinois, would be affected. A study by the Federal Highway Administration confirms more than 3,000 acres of family farmland would be destroyed.

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now