Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Learner Warns Investment in Illiana Tollway is Waste of Limited Transpo Dollars

Indiana Tries to Keep Illiana Toll Road Alive 
By Susan DeMar Lafferty

While Illinois’ position on the proposed Illiana toll road does not appear to have changed, the Indiana Department of Transportation will fund a new environmental impact study to keep the controversial project alive.

According to a court brief filed this week, INDOT has agreed to “fund the technical work needed” to comply with a court order.

The $1.3 billion, 47-mile highway was intended to connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington with Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind., as a truckers’ alternative to Interstate 80. The Environmental Law & Policy Center, Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club challenged the government’s approval of the Illiana in federal and state courts last year.

The Illiana was shelved indefinitely by Gov. Bruce Rauner in January 2015 due to the state’s budget crisis.

Many thought the project was dead when a federal judge ruled in June that the Federal Highway Administration’s Record of Decision approving the project was “arbitrary and capricious,” invalid and in violation of U.S. environmental law.






Howard Learner Talks Mine Cleanup Self-Bonding on EETV

Howard Learner joined Monica Trauzzi of EETV to talk about how the recent bankruptcy of Peabody Energy may  impact the cleanup of mines the company the company has self-bonded in Illinois and Indiana. Watch the interview.

Crain’s Chicago Business: ELPC’s Learner Warns Latest Illiana Funding is a Bad Move

Illinois, Indiana join in funding move to keep Illiana alive

by Greg Hinz

In the latest sign that the proposed Illiana Expressway still has a heartbeat, Illinois and Indiana appear to have reached a deal under which the latter will provide the cash needed for a key revamped environmental review of the controversial toll road.

In a document filed in U.S. District Court here today, the Indiana Department of Transportation said it has “agreed to fund the technical work needed to comply” with changes in the Environmental Impact Statement ordered by the court. That means that the Illinois Department of Transportation, whose funding has been limited by this state’s continuing budget stalemate, will not have to come up with money despite what the filing describes as “funding issues presented by IDOT.”

The filing indicates that repairs on the rejected EIS could be completed by the end of July.

Judge Jorge Alonso had ruled last summer that the environmental statement by IDOT and InDOT was “arbitrary and capricious,” failing to consider among other things a “no build” alternative to pouring dozens of miles of concrete through wildlife and plant havens between I-55 and I-65.

No exact figures have been disclosed, but it is believed that redoing the EIS is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The boondoggle Illiana Tollway seems to be the fiscal folly project that Gov. Rauner and his IDOT just can’t give up,” said Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Howard Learner, who represents Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and other plaintiffs in the case. “Illinois has vital high-priority transportation projects that should not be diluted by pouring more public money into the Illiana Tollway.”


Press Release: ELPC Statement on Peabody Bankruptcy Filing


David Jakubiak, Media Relations

Environmental Law & Policy Center Statement On
Peabody Energy Bankruptcy Filing

Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

“Peabody Energy is in bankruptcy because senior corporate management made poor business decisions. Peabody bet on rapidly expanding coal markets as natural gas prices hit historic lows, energy efficiency slashed demand and China’s robust growth slowed.
“The Environmental Law & Policy Center will move to engage in federal bankruptcy court proceedings to make sure Peabody Energy’s coal mine reclamation and clean-up responsibilities in Illinois and across the Midwest are accomplished to the maximum extent possible, and that coal miners and communities are treated fairly.”


The Indianapolis Star: ELPC’s Learner Calls on Indiana Officials to require Peabody to Pay Reclamation Costs

By Howard Learner

Watch your wallets. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is allowing Peabody Energy to potentially stick Indiana taxpayers with the company’s $163 million of mine reclamation costs.

For too long, Peabody Energy has been allowed to “self-bond” — a promise to provide future reclamation funds — instead of purchasing a surety bond or creating a trust fund to pay for the costs of cleaning up its mines, avoiding contamination and reclaiming the lands that the mining has marred. Peabody is now verging on bankruptcy. Indiana officials need to act decisively to ensure that taxpayers aren’t left holding the financial bag.

Indiana and federal laws require mining companies to reclaim surface lands damaged by their operations and provide financial assurances that cleanup funds will be available. Companies often buy third-party surety bonds that act as insurance policies guaranteeing reclamation funds are available when needed.

Peabody, however, uses “self-bonds” for its six coal mines in Indiana. Maybe that made sense five years ago when Peabody Energy’s stock price was about $74 and its market capitalization was billions of dollars. Peabody has since lost 99 percent of its market value and is radically restructuring its finances and selling assets to avoid bankruptcy. Peabody has essentially “maxed out its credit cards” by borrowing all remaining funds under its corporate debt agreement.

Why is Peabody Energy in such financial distress?

First, Peabody’s management issued billions of dollars in debt and made an ill-timed bet that China’s coal imports would grow at a very rapid pace and the U.S. coal market would grow. That bet didn’t pay off.

Second, energy efficiency is saving businesses and residential consumers money on utility bills and reducing electricity demand and sales. In short, U.S. coal supply exceeds demand.

Peabody has $163 million in mine reclamation responsibilities for its Indiana mines. If state officials don’t step up now and require Peabody to set aside funds for its mine reclamation obligations, Indiana taxpayers may be left standing in line in federal bankruptcy court for pennies on the dollar.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a citizens’ complaint contending this self-bonding violates the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and urging Indiana officials to require Peabody to purchase a surety bond or otherwise commit real funds for mine reclamation obligations.

To date, Indiana officials have not changed course. The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement directed the Department of Natural Resources to respond “by taking appropriate action to cause the possible violations to be corrected or to show good cause for such failure.” The department, however, continues to allow Peabody Investments Corp. (PIC) to be the corporate guarantor for Peabody’s mining operations in Indiana. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources stated that “whether Peabody has placed all assets in [PIC] and all debts in another … is not a matter for Indiana to decide.”

What kind of corporate shell game is Peabody playing? Does PIC have $163 million available and committed to pay for reclaiming Peabody’s six Indiana mines, or not?

It is a vital matter, indeed, for Indiana to determine whether or not Peabody has the $163 million available to cover its reclamation responsibilities.

The buck stops with the Department of Natural Resources, and Gov. Mike Pence needs to step in. There is little justification for allowing Peabody Energy to continue self-bonding. Sound public policy should not hinge on Peabody’s bankrupt promise, and Indiana taxpayers should not be put on the hook for $163 million of Peabody’s reclamation costs and financial responsibility.

Peabody management’s decisions have landed the company in its current financial distress. Indiana officials should heed the warning signals and act quickly to require Peabody to purchase surety bonds or otherwise provide necessary funds to provide for its mine reclamation responsibilities before it is too late.

Read Here 

Press Release: Wisconsin Electric Co-Op Sets Standard for Rural Solar

February 24, 2016

David Jakubiak

Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops
Announcement Nearly Doubling Wisconsin Solar Sets Roadmap for Midwest Co-Ops

Wisconsin’s Dairyland Power Cooperative and its member cooperatives announced a historic investment in solar energy on Wednesday unveiling plans to build more than 15 megawatts of new solar energy at 12 locations across Wisconsin.

The announced projects will nearly the double the amount of solar power installed in Wisconsin, which now has about 25 megawatts of installed solar. The projects will be built by solar developers SoCore Energy, based in Chicago and groSolar based in White River Junction, Vermont. Together the installations will create enough electricity for more than 2500 homes.

“Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders for solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison. “Dairyland was clear that this effort grew out of support for solar from their members, commitment to diversifying their generation and stabilizing costs , which are goals of cooperatives across the region.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Dairyland announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”

To learn more about the Dairyland Power announcement visit:

Press Release: ELPC Named to New Ohio River Advisory Committee of Watershed Non-Profits

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                              

 ELPC Named to New Ohio River Advisory Committee of Watershed Non-Profits   

Committee gets seat at table with ORSANCO commissioners

 Columbus, Ohio – The Environmental Law & Policy Center and more than a dozen other environmentally-focused non-profit organizations within the Ohio River Basin were named to a newly-formed Advisory Committee to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), a multi-state group charged with setting pollution and abatement standards for the waterway.

The new Watershed Organizations Advisory Committee includes representatives from water-focused environmental non-profits throughout the Ohio River Basin that will be interact with other stakeholder advisory committees and ORSANCO members during scheduled meetings. ELPC already has been an active participant in ORSANCO deliberations over mercury “mixing zones” and other issues during public comment periods and in other ways. The new committee will enable ELPC and its partners to play a more participatory role early on in ORSANCO’s decision-making process.

“The Environmental Law & Policy Center and our fellow advocacy organizations have been working hard over the past year to make sure that ORSANCO understands the environmental and public health ramifications of its decisions,” said Madeline Fleisher, staff attorney at ELPC. “We look forward to participating on this committee as a new avenue to address the serious problems confronting the Ohio River, such as mercury contamination and toxic algae outbreaks.”

Judy Peterson, Executive Director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, was voted chairman of the committee. “On behalf of the Watershed Organizations Advisory Committee members, I thank the Commissioners for their cordial welcome,” said Peterson. “In the entire 68-year history of ORSANCO, there has never before been an official seat at the table for watershed and wildlife advocacy organizations.”

ORSANCO Chairman Douglas Conroe added, “I am delighted to see the interest that the 17 watershed organizations have offered in helping ORSANCO in its development of Ohio River studies and policies and welcome working with them at the table.”

The new committee will serve its first ex officio role at ORSANCO’s Technical Committee meeting in June 2016.






Learner Talks Risks of Coal Mine Self-Bonding with Midwest Energy News


Peabody Energy is one of the country’s largest coal companies, supplying power plants and steel mills around the world.

But in the past few years the company’s fortunes have plummeted, and environmental leaders don’t believe Peabody’s promises that, when the time comes, it will be able to pay more than $250 million to clean up its Illinois Basin mines.

Under federal law, mining companies must set aside money to pay for reclamation once mining stops. This is generally done through insurance policies known as surety bonds. But the government also allows companies in good financial shape to “self-bond,” promising that their own assets will be able to cover the cost of reclamation.

A decade ago, Peabody Energy would have been considered a robust company, and there were few concerns about its self-bonding arrangements.

Today it’s a different story. And industry experts doubt that the plan Peabody executives described on an earnings call earlier this month will do much to turn the tide, given the rapid retreat of coal-fired power and the slowing of China’s economythat’s a major factor in worldwide coal demand.

“The risk is that Peabody’s responsibility to clean up from its mining operations will be washed away in a bankruptcy proceeding, and Illinois taxpayers will be left holding the financial bag,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “That’s unacceptable.”

Read more

Midwest Energy News: ELPC Standing Up for Consumers, Energy Efficiency Efforts in NIPSCO Rate Hike Case

An Indiana utility is requesting a fixed rate charge increase of more than 80 percent, even as nationwide utility commissions have denied or curbed many such requests and utilities in other states have backed off the strategy.

The northern Indiana utility NIPSCO argues, as other utilities around the country have, that it needs the rate structure revision to make sure that all customers pay their fair share for upkeep of the grid.

Increased fixed charges are widely seen as an attack on distributed solar, since a set charge regardless of how much energy one uses discourages generating one’s own electricity. The increases also discourage energy conservation and efficiency.

In a case filed October 1 (docket number 4468), NIPSCO asked for fixed monthly charges to be increased from $11 to $20 per month for residential customers. Previously the utility Indianapolis Power & Light Company also asked for a fixed charge increase, from $11 to $17 monthly. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is currently considering both cases.

The commission is often viewed as accommodating to utilities, so clean energy advocates fear the fixed charge increases may be approved. A bill introduced, then later pulled, in the Indiana legislature last year would have forced the commission to approve any fixed charge increase requests.

“This conversation is getting underway in Indiana and the NIPSCO case is on top of the list because of the language they used and their stated intent that, ‘This is just the beginning folks, we’ll be back for more every few years,’” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizen Actions Coalition. “It’s something we’d like to nip in the bud.”

Indiana currently has only a very small amount of distributed solar installed.

In discovery for the rate case, the coalition and the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) found that NIPSCO has only 80 residential and small commercial customers with distributed solar, out of a total of 410,000 residential customers and about 51,000 small commercial customers. Statewide, there are only about 1,000 utility customers with solar.

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Northwest Indiana Times: ELPC Files Testimony Against NIPSCO Rate Hike

A grassroots Indiana consumer group and a heavyweight environmental organization have teamed up to attack NIPSCO’s efforts to raise fixed charges on electric bills.

The Citizens Action Coalition and the Environmental Law & Policy Center have filed testimony with state regulators alleging the increased charge will hit low income, minority and elderly customers the hardest. They also charge it will discourage people from conserving electricity.

“The company’s (NIPSCO’s) proposal would unjustly shift costs and cause disproportionate harm to low-volume, low-income residential ratepayers while undermining the viability of energy efficiency programming,” said John Howat, a witness testifying for the consumer and the environmental group.

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