Illinois

Great Lakes Now: ELPC’s Learner Tells US Army Corps to Stop Fiddling, Act Fast on Asian Carp Report

Pace of Asian Carp Plan “taking far too long”
Michigan Senators Critical of Timetable

by Gary Wilson

The debate about how to stop Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes hit another milestone last week as the Army Corps of Engineers’ extended comment period on a potential solution came to a close.

The controversy is now in its second decade.

The opportunity to comment was expanded to accommodate a previously unscheduled session in New Orleans. The extension angered Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters who say the “process is taking far too long.”

The Corps has been seeking public input on its plan, known as the Brandon Road Lock study, since September. If implemented, the plan would provide a suite of options to keep carp out of the Great Lakes.

in a letter to the Corps, Stabenow and Peters questioned why the New Orleans meeting wasn’t scheduled earlier.

The Brandon Road Lock, 50 miles from Lake Michigan, near Joliet, Illinois, is thought to be a choke point for stopping Asian carp.

But the final Army Corps report isn’t due until August of 2019, and Stabenow and Peters want that date moved up by eight months to January.

The senators expressed frustration that the Trump administration had delayed release of the report early in 2017.

Illinois Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti called for the report to be delayed in a column published in the Chicago Tribune in early 2017. Shipping interests in Illinois have lobbied against the Army Corps plan.

In their letter, Stabenow and Peters also questioned the Corps’ economic analysis of the impact of Asian carp on the Great Lakes.

“The (Army Corps) should not ignore the impact of Asian carp on several important industries – including recreation and tourism – or the economic impacts to the other Great Lakes besides Lake Erie,” the senators wrote.

Lake Erie’s fishery is the largest in the Great Lakes and thought to be the most vulnerable to an Asian carp invasion.

In a similar letter to the Army Corps, 28 members of the U.S. House from the Great Lakes region called for the original project timeline to be followed.

“Fiddling”

Input from environmental groups followed previously held positions but also sought to spotlight economic impacts.

Howard Learner said in a statement released to Great Lakes Now that the Army Corps’ proposals are a “starter.”

But Learner said they are “short of what’s needed to avoid the economic and ecological disaster if our public officials don’t prevent Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes.”

He accused the Corps of “fiddling,” which would lead to additional delays.

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Chicago Sun-Times Editorial: Don’t send more air pollution to Chicago

EDITORIAL: Don’t send more air pollution to Chicago
October 18, 2017
Sun-times Editorial Board

Last year, Illinois enacted a farsighted law designed to provide cleaner air, more jobs and lower energy bills. Now, a company that owns coal-fired power plants in Illinois is pushing to weaken clear-air rules in a way that would undermine those goals. The Illinois Pollution Control Board should take a deep breath and refuse to go along.

Weaker regulations, in this case, would be a big step backward. The state’s air, including in Chicago, would get dirtier and the transition away from coal would be detoured.

Last year, stakeholders ranging from environmentalists to utilities laboriously hammered out an agreement that resulted in the Illinois Future Jobs Act, a law designed to improve residents’ health and make Illinois a leader in renewable energy — all while reining in utility bills.

Since then, however, two utilities have engaged in what amount to counterattacks.

First, the Downstate utility Ameren, which supplies gas and electricity to central and southern Illinois, persuaded the Illinois Commerce Commission to let it lower its energy efficiency goals.

Now Dynegy, which owns eight coal-fired power plants in central and southern Illinois, wants the Illinois Pollution Control Board to scrap the limits on the rate of pollution each of its plants can emit. Dynegy, which also is reportedly seeking rate increases in the Legislature, proposes instead that existing annual caps apply to its plants as a group, which would allow it to give its dirtier plants more leeway to belch out soot and other pollutants that cause smog and acid rain.

The proposal comes as Dynegy faces a deadline that Ameren, which previously owned the plants, agreed to in 2006 to reduce air pollution.

In a classic example of the problems with revolving-door government, Dynegy has worked with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — a former lobbyist for a trade association that represents Dynegy — to draw up the plan. According to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, the revised pollution cap would provide a financial incentive for Dynegy to actually increase pollution if it chose.

For a hearing on Thursday, Dynegy is on the agenda with a request for the Illinois Pollution Control Board to rush through the decision-making process. But there is no need to rush. This is a matter that demands full input and careful consideration. Illinois does not face any shortage of power generation capacity.

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PV Magazine: ELPC Working to Bring Community Solar to Illinois

Community solar, PACE policies moving forward in Illinois
By Mark Burger

August 28, 2017

Community solar in Illinois has made another step forward in the long slog to implementation with the filing by ComEd of a tariff with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) on August 15 requesting that the requisite riders for community solar be added to existing net metering and related riders.

The rider in the tariff, POGCS, will include provisions for both the provider, or developer, of community solar projects and the beneficiaries, or subscribers, without which projects cannot go forward until both conditions are satisfied. This is the latest action in a process that began with enactment of the Future Energy Jobs Act on December 7, 2016, which took effect on June 1, 2017.

ComEd has requested approval from the ICC by September 29, and for the tariff to take effect on October 9th.  Several intervenors have filed in this tariff so far including the Illinois Power Agency, Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Illinois Competitive Energy Association.

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Daily Southtown: ELPC Explains Why Will Co. Farmers See Sun as New Cash Crop

Solar farms are cropping up in Will County
By Susan DeMar Lafferty

September 5, 2017

As harvest season approaches, some Will County farmers may already be considering alternatives to the future of their corn and soybean fields. They are learning that the sun they now rely on to produce vegetables, could be harnessed into a new cash crop.

Empowered by Illinois’ new Future Energy Jobs Act, solar companies have approached area farmers in recent weeks about converting a portion of their property into solar farms.

Cypress Creek Renewables, which currently operates solar farms in eight states, has an agreement with a landowner in Crete Township to convert 45 acres on Goodenow Road into a five MegaWatt solar farm, enough to power 800 homes, said Scott Novack, Cypress’ senior developer. They are looking for more sites.

Frankfort officials have just begun to discuss a concept for a 32-acre community solar farm that could generate enough energy to power 1,200 homes, according to developer Josh Barrett, of Solarshift LLC, Homer Glen.

“This is totally new to us,” said Mark Schneidewind, manager of the Will County Farm Bureau. About 100 farmers recently received letters from a few different companies and about a dozen have retained a lawyer to negotiate the finer details, he said.

With offers of $800 per acre, compared to $160 to $180 for a really good crop yield, some older farmers are considering this as a steady cash flow as they head into retirement, Schneidewind said.

Others are concerned about leasing their farms for 20 to 30 years, and want to know if it would restrict their ability to use their land, or interfere with drain tiles, he said.

He said he does not see this as the future of farming, because the ground in Will County is “prime farmland,” but he acknowledged that this gives people an alternative.

Novack said Cypress needs at least 20 acres in close proximity to power lines or substations, and are “actively working on” five to 10 projects in Will County. Realistically, he said he expects they will move forward with one or two.

It will be at least 2019 before a facility is operating. According to CCR’s website, the entire process, from signing the lease to completing construction, takes 18 to 24 months.

Cypress invited area landowners to a recent community meeting, but drew only one, along with two county board members — Judy Ogalla and Laurie Summers, he said.

The farm bureau has held two seminars, in each of the last two Aprils, attracting about 100 people each, to provide information and answer questions.

Schneidewind also has been at the table with Will County’s Land Use Department to discuss how best to regulate this burgeoning business.

The county currently is “not very restrictive,” but does require a special use permit for solar projects — which adds an extra layer of scrutiny, said Samantha Bluemer, of the Land Use Department. As officials update the zoning codes, they want to ensure these are “safe developments” and protect the landowner, she said.

Will County recently won an award for being “solar smart” for simplifying its zoning ordinances and making “alternative energy” an option on its building permit application. It also has enhanced training for permitting and inspection staff and increased public resources regarding solar energy systems and consumer protections, in order to promote positive, sustainable growth.

As they review zoning codes, they are looking at decommissioning the land, mitigating the agricultural land, requiring bonds, letters of credit, and fire training, Bluemer said.

While officials in Frankfort are “excited” about having a solar energy field and contributing to renewable energy, development director Jeff Cook said they want to make sure the site will be properly maintained over the years. A special use permit will be required.

“Renewable energy is a hot topic, a timely subject, but we don’t know all the ins and outs,” Cook said, adding that they are looking at Barrett’s proposal from a land use perspective, and while the location “makes sense,” the plan needs “more details.”

Barrett has proposed a community solar farm on 32 acres on the southwest corner of Pfeiffer Road and Sauk Trail, where it could easily connect to a nearby ComEd substation.

Unlike the larger scale utility farms, Barrett said he would sell solar panels to residents, who would then receive credit on their electric bill for producing their own power.

Given that the majority of rooftops on homes are not conducive to solar panels, community solar farms allow residents to buy into renewable energy at half the cost, with optimal production, he said.

He is now working out zoning issues with the village, which currently requires a special use permit, he said. He hopes to conduct pre-sales at the beginning of 2018, open to Frankfort residents first, then others. If there is not enough interest, the project would not go forward, Barrett said.

Knowing that Frankfort is concerned about aesthetics, he plans not only landscaped berms to seclude the site, but will incorporate native plants and pollinators to promote water filtration and create wildlife habitats.

The panels are designed to last 25 years, and if approved, this site would be developed in three phases, each to produce two megawatts (MW) of power — enough to power 1,200 homes, Barrett said.

“It doesn’t produce any negative effects, just clean energy,” he said.

Brad Klein, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, agreed.

The state law sets benchmarks for creating 4,300 megawatts of new solar and wind power —enough electricity to power millions of homes — to be built in Illinois by 2030.

That goal, along with incentives and tax credits, has led to a lot of interest statewide, Klein said.

The Illinois Power Agency is now working to implement that law, and drafting regulations, but development is happening before the details have been finalized, he said.

Still, Klein said he sees only benefits, and the ELPC has been a key proponent of renewable energy.

“We are really interested in finding the best ways to make sure solar processes are integrated well into the landscape,” he said.

Among the “best ways” are creating pollinator habitats under the panels, which may make the land more productive, and making sure the land is restored to its original condition if no longer used for solar farming, he said.

These farms also are expected to generate more revenue for local schools and communities since solar companies would pay property taxes on land they lease — likely at a higher rate than agricultural land, Klein said.

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NW Indiana Times: Feds Agree with ELPC & Reject Great Lakes Basin Rail Application

By Andrew Steele

The federal Surface Transportation Board has rejected Great Lakes Basin Transportation’s application to build and operate a 261-mile freight railroad from LaPorte County to southeast Wisconsin.

“GLBT has failed to provide the board with accurate financial information upon which the board can rely to make a determination on the transportation merits of the project,” the STB stated in its decision, dated Wednesday.

Financial statements that GLBT provided in June show the company had $802,000 in accounts payable as of Dec. 31, and investors owned $473,573 in common stock.

But, the STB observed, “The balance sheet … contains an unexplained line item for ‘net income’ (amounting to negative $1,203,545) that appears to account for a substantial difference between its assets and its liabilities and stockholders’ equity.”

Further, “GLBT’s current assets of $151 are so clearly deficient for purposes of constructing a 261-mile rail line that the board will not proceed with this application given the impacts on stakeholders and the demands upon board resources,” the STB ruled.

Company attorney Michael Blaszak said Thursday that GLBT “is assessing its options with respect to the board’s decision today and will have no further comment on the decision.”

Railroad officials have said in the past they can’t secure funding commitments from investors without STB approval of the project, hence the limited amount of current resources.

Plans for the Great Lakes Basin Railroad call for 244 miles of mainline track and 17 miles of branch lines, including one connecting with the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad at Kingsbury. The railroad would have 26 connections to other railroads, including two in Lake County and six in Porter and LaPorte counties.

The railroad would be able to handle as many as 110 trains per day for various-length trips along its three-state path, according to the GLBT application.
The construction cost was estimated at $2.8 billion.

The line would allow trains passing through Chicago to avoid congestion there, an opportunity GLBT officials said ensured its viability.

“A freight train can take 30 hours — more during periods of severe weather — to pass through the Chicago area, resulting in added inventory cost for shippers, suboptimal equipment utilization, air pollution, delayed passenger trains and billions of dollars in wasted productivity,” GLBT stated in its application.

Frank Patton founded Great Lakes Basin Transportation in 2011. An environmental review process, overseen by the STB, began last year, but was suspended in December at the request of GLBT so it could concentrate on completing the application. The STB decision officially discontinues the environmental review.

Opponents of the freight rail project expressed their satisfaction in the hours after the the decision was published.

Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said cooperation among elected officials and organized citizens was key.

“(U.S. Rep. Pete) Visclosky ensured all residents had scoping meetings in their counties, our state legislators updated our antiquated eminent domain laws creating a level playing field, various local governments including the Porter County Commissioners passed resolutions stating concerns, and our citizens banded together to create a strong grassroots effort and the best decision for the most people was made,” she said via email.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said “the board made a very sensible, very clear decision.”

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Crain’s Chicago Business: ELPC’s Learner Says Freight Companies Should Pay Their Share to Fix Chicago Rail Bottleneck

As the Nation’s Rail Hub, Chicago is an Expensive and Dangerous Bottleneck
By Judith Crown

One of the daily nuisances caused by the tangle of the Chicago area’s nearly 4,000 miles of rail track can be seen at the 71st Street grade crossing just east of Western Avenue. Motorists are routinely stuck for 15 to 20 minutes behind a gate, which is down an average of two hours a day.

“It gets pretty crowded,” said Vernon Wiltz, an aide to Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th). “We get complaints about traffic, and the train horns are horrendous at 3 or 4 in the morning.”

But however bad it is for motorists, think of it from the freight train’s point of view. Thomas the Tank Engine and his cousins must crawl for hours at a time navigating an eight mile stretch of South Side track where four freight and two passenger lines converge to create one of the worst rail choke points in the nation.

The so-called 75th Street corridor, which despite its name actually meanders from Evergreen Park to the Dan Ryan Expressway, is a prime reason why experts say a coast-to-coast freight train can spend one-third of its trip simply trying to pass through Chicago area bottlenecks. They pose deadly safety hazards and add immense expense to the cost of shipping goods by rail.

As President Trump beats the drum for a $1 trillion national public works program reminiscent of the New Deal, the Chicago area offers a long list of critical infrastructure suffering from deferred maintenance and in dire need of an upgrade. Rail, central to Chicago’s growth from prairie backwater to metropolitan crossroads, tops the list.

The economic peril of inaction is palpable. A 2015 Amtrak study concluded that $935 billion in goods transit through the Chicago on rail per year, and executives of major carriers frustrated by delays are becoming more vocal about the possibility of shifting traffic—and by extensions spending and investment–away from the area.

Indeed, Keith Creel, the CEO of Canadian Pacific told investors in May that his line was in talks with Jacksonville Fla.-based CSX to form a joint marketing and operating agreement to avoid Chicago switching yards and bypass chokepoints.

The partnership could find other ways to avoid Chicago. CP, for example, could bring intermodal traffic into Vancouver and hand it off to CSX on the east side of the Great Lakes, said Keith Schoonmaker, director for industrials equity research at Morningstar, Inc. “You’re a fool to drive into a traffic jam,” Schoonmaker said.

Another alternative: Shippers could circumvent the city by using the widened Panama Canal—East Coast cities are dredging their ports to accommodate larger container ships that can pass through the widened waterway, said Joseph C. Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who headed the Federal Railroad Administration under former President Barack Obama.

Four Atlantic ports already can accommodate larger containerships: New York/New Jersey, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Va., and Port Everglades, Fla., according to Shyam Raman, program manager at consultancy Frost & Sullivan, which analyzed the Chicago rail congestion problem for Amtrak.

These threats are real, Szabo said. “We put at risk losing our dominance if we don’t take decisive action.” Freight volumes are growing, he added, due to growth in population, consumption and the explosion of e-commerce, so it’s possible the region could tread water but still lose market share.

About 25 percent of all U.S. freight trains, and half of all intermodal trains that ferry shipping containers and trailer trucks, pass through the Chicago area, according to CMAP. Each day, tracks in the region bristle with 1,300 trains carrying freight and passengers.

But tracks, bridges, switches and signals largely laid out more than a century ago have resulted in a jumble that grinds away at efficiency. It often takes 26 to 30 hours for a freight train to pass through the area, a considerable time suck out of the typical three to five days it takes to move freight from West Coast ports to the Eastern seaboard.

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Crain’s Chicago Business: Illinois Gov. Rauner Pushes Back on Army Corps’ Report to Prevent Asian Carp from Entering Great Lakes

Rauner at Center of Flap Over Asian Carp

By Greg Hinz

While battles over taxes and spending have captured most of the headlines out of Springfield lately, Gov. Bruce Rauner is at the center of another emerging fight that could have an impact on his re-election: how to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Though some details are in flux, the fight pits Rauner against the state’s powerful green lobby, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

Those environmental groups are lined up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which last week released a much-anticipated report concluding that the best option available is a $275 million plan to install a combination of electronic and sound barriers by the Brandon Road lock and dam on the Illinois River, near Joliet and about 47 miles upstream from Lake Michigan.

“The Asian carp have no natural predators in the Great Lakes and will disrupt the $62 billion economy based on fishing, boating and recreational activities,” said ELPC’s Howard Learner. “We cannot let the Trump administration’s war on the Great Lakes involve insufficient actions to prevent the Asian carp from threatening our fresh water system.”

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ABC 7 Chicago: ELPC Proposes Chicago Pedway Makeover Plans

Now, there is a plan to spruce up the walkway, which pedestrians can use with it’s too hot or cold to be outside. The tunnel links more than 50 buildings, as well as Metra and subway stations, and is used by thousands daily.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center proposed the upgrades, which seeks to revitalize the main stem of the pedway along Randolph Street from Millennium Station to the Thompson Center.

“If we had better navigation, signage and better coordinated, we activated it arts and entertainment it would be a really cool place,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

PRESS RELEASE: Midwest Environmental Groups Sound Alarm on Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Cuts & Line 5 Issues

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                          Contact: Judith Nemes

July 6, 2017                                                                      

 

Midwest Environmental Groups Sound Alarm on Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Cuts & Line 5 Issues

ELPC & Groundwork Gathering in Traverse City Urge Attendees to Fight Back Against Trump Administration’s War on the Great Lakes 

TRAVERSE CITY, MI. – Michiganders gathered in Traverse City today to hear two Midwest environmental leaders present strategies to push back on threats to the progress of restoring the Great Lakes and safe clean drinking water. They focused on countering the Trump Administration’s proposed complete elimination of $300 million in funding for the bipartisan-supported Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the FY 2018 budget, which has provided $2.2 billion for about 3,000 projects since its inception, and persuading Michigan policymakers to decide on an alternative to the dangerous Line 5 pipeline.

“President Trump won his election in the pivotal Great Lakes states, but his misguided policies and practices amount to a War on the Great Lakes,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Midwest-based Environmental Law & Policy Center. “The Trump Administration is eliminating funding for the sensible and successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, rolling back Clean Water standards and reconsidering the additions to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron. The Trump Administration doesn’t seem to understand how much Michiganders care about protecting the Great Lakes where we live, work and play, and which provides safe clean drinking water for 42 million people.”

Hans Voss, Executive Director of Traverse City’s Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a leader in the campaign to protect the Great Lakes from an oil spill from the Line 5 pipeline, urged attendees to comment this month on safer alternatives proposed by the State Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

“The time for state decision-makers to study and debate what to do about the Line 5 pipeline is over,” said Voss. “Now is the time for citizens to speak up and push for lawmakers to shut down the pipeline once and for all.”

The gathering took place at the Bluewater Event Center in Traverse City.

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Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Susan Mudd Says Illinois Volkswagen Money Should Include Electric School Buses

Waiting on VW Money
June 26, 2017
By Mary Wisniewski

Illinois, a state notorious for financial problems, is due to get some non-taxpayer money — $108.7 million from a national settlement with carmaker Volkwagen over the German automaker’s emissions scandal.

But Illinois is behind other states in soliciting public input on how to spend the money, which is supposed to go to clean air projects. And some environmental groups are worried that Illinois is taking too long to find out what people want and come up with a plan.

“I think this should be started as soon as possible,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “I think the sooner the better, the more people who get to participate the better.”

Midwestern states ahead of Illinois include Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Iowa. Minnesota, for example, has already hosted three public input sessions and is accepting comments through Friday.

“Those states are ready to take advantage of the funds as soon as they become available,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. She said Illinois does not risk losing the money but does risk causing delays.

Illinois EPA officials responded that they are waiting to be named as the legal beneficiary for the money by the trustee before having public hearings. Being named legal beneficiary will happen after the trustee names an “effective trust date,” which is the day when the process to qualify for funding gets going and deadlines kick in for states to submit plans.

“Illinois EPA will be seeking public input before completing our mitigation plan, but we have not decided on the method(s),” said IEPA Associate Director Heather Nifong in an email.

Asked why Illinois has chosen to wait on getting public input while other states have gone ahead, Nifong said in an interview, “Every state should choose their own path forward.”

The money is due to come from a multibillion-dollar settlement with Volkswagen. The automaker admitted in 2015 that it had installed secret software that allowed U.S. vehicles to emit up to 40 times the legally allowable level of pollution. VW agreed to more than $15 billion in settlements, and some of that money is going to states for clean-air programs.

Late last month, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Environmental Council, the Citizens Utility Board, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, met with Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina to discuss the settlement and make suggestions on how the money should be used.

In a written statement, the groups recommended using 15 percent of the VW money, or about $16 million, to deploy light-duty plug-in electric vehicle charging stations. The rest of the money should be spent on zero-emission vehicles, such as electric school and transit buses, the statement said.

Katie Miller, principal at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in the North Center neighborhood, is hoping for electric school buses.

“We have several children who suffer from asthma and other related respiratory illnesses,” Miller said. She said the bus companies try to work with the school to limit bus idling, but “it’s not a perfect system. … An electric bus would really resolve a lot of these issues.”

Nifong said Illinois is talking with stakeholders, such as environmental groups, on an informal, ongoing basis and continues to listen to people who are “eager to share their ideas on how the mitigation funds should be spent.”

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