Chicago’s power ordinance investigated

By Darryl Holliday

Despite federal regulations imposed under the Clean Air Act, some Chicago politicians and environmental advocates find that more stringent enforcements are needed for the city’s particular air quality needs.

As part of an ongoing saga, the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance took another step on April 21 when the controversial proposal was heard before the City Council Health Committee and the Energy, Environmental and Public Utilities Committee, which ended with the vote being postponed because of the complexity of investigation involved in moving forward.

Employees of Midwest Generation, owner of the city’s two coal-fired power plants, and clean power ordinance supporters filled the Council chambers at 121 N. LaSalle St. to voice concern regarding what has largely become a battle between union jobs and clean air advocacy.

“We’re here to let people know that perceptions [about the plants] are wrong,” said a union power plant controlman of 30 years, who refused to be identified. “The industry is changing, new technologies are coming, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

The Clean Power Ordinance, introduced last year by Alderman Joe Moore (50th Ward), seeks to either convert the coal plants to safer energy production methods or shut them down completely by next year, as previously reported in The Chronicle on Sept. 13, 2010 and Feb. 21, 2011.

However, it remains to be seen whether the city is ready for Moore’s solution.

“Everything takes time,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of the Illinois Department of Environment. “We want clean air but based around economic aspects.”

Attended by hundreds of supporters on both sides of the issue, the committee hearing was one of several steps some council members have taken to further regulate the Crawford and Fisk coal plants, 1111 W. Cermak Road and 3501 S. Pulaski Road.

Workers of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, Local 15, stressed the importance of employment that the plants provide as well as safety restrictions in place at the facilities. However, ordinance advocates argue that the negative health impact on residents should take precedence.

According to Malec-McKenna, the Chicago Climate Action Plan, regardless of potential Clean Power Ordinance restrictions, has imposed reduction timelines on the plants emissions that would shut them down by 2018 if those regulations are not met.

Both plants are, as of April 21, legally in compliance with state permits, according to Malec-McKenna. However, according to Miranda Carter, of Environment Illinois, their “grandfathered” status allows the plants—two of the oldest in the country—to avoid meeting current standards.

In 2004, the plants emitted 5.13 tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Illinois Department of Environment, though pending rules under new powers given to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon could further restrict the plants in coming months.

However, the EPA, which received its new powers in January, is moving slowly in imposing new restrictions.

“Because there has been federal inaction and state inaction in resolving this issue, we must address the effects of coal power here on the local level,” said Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward), whose ward includes Pilsen, where the Fisk coal plant is located. “Regardless of the outcome of today’s hearing, I will continue to fight for a cleaner, safer environment for our neighborhoods.”

Solis, who until last month refused to support the ordinance, recently changed his mind in the lead up to the April 15 runoff election when aldermanic challenger Temoc Morfin forced him to flip-flop on the issue in a successful effort to retain his seat in City Council.

The joint committee’s decision to hold the long-awaited vote on the ordinance, according to Virginia Rugai (19th Ward), retiring alderman and chairman of the Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities committee, is intended to further scrutinize the ambitious proposal before action is taken.

In addition to the discussion regarding the city’s two coal-fired power plants, located less than five miles apart in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods, the legal authority of the ordinance was called into question as well as frequently cited data stating the devastating effects of the plants on city residents.

According to Ron Jolly, senior counsel of the city’s law department, the ordinance will likely be challenged in court if passed in the City Council. Jolly said while Chicago has broad authority within its jurisdiction, that power is not unlimited. He noted the legal risks involved in exercising “home rule” authority regarding air quality, though confirming that the department will “vigorously” defend the ordinance to the best of its ability should matters go to court.

Likewise, the validity of a September 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force, stating that 621 deaths and 1,019 asthma cases occur per year in Illinois due to the Fisk and Crawford coal plants, was challeneged by Cortland Lohfs, medical director for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

According to Lowe, an exact number of fatalities and other negative health consequences cannot be attributed to the coal plants because harmful particulate matter comes from a variety of sources, many of which are present in Pilsen and Little Village.

“I disagree with the facts as stated [in the report],” Lowe said. “You can’t trust those numbers.”

Many other questions remained largely unresolved at the hearing, including where energy produced at the Midwest coal plants ends up being used—many sources say not necessarily in Illinois—and whether alteration of the plants will be harmful to city revenue.

It will be largely up to the incoming City Council due to be inaugurated on May 16, and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to decide.