New Climate-Change Law May Not Limit Coal-Fired Power Plants

The Fisk Generating Station in Chicago is among the coal-fired power plants largely exempted from the Clean Air Act's emissions-control requirements.
The Fisk Generating Station in Chicago is among the coal-fired power plants largely exempted from the Clean Air Act's emissions-control requirements. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

CHICAGO -- The twin smokestacks of the 85-year-old Crawford Generating Station are a familiar backdrop in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. It's a largely Mexican immigrant community where children play in the street, families congregate on stoops and pushcart vendors sell corncobs within blocks of the plant and its large coal pile.

Six miles away in another crowded neighborhood sits a second plant, the Fisk Generating Station, built in 1903.

They are among the nation's fleet of aging coal-fired power plants, a handful of them in the heart of urban areas, including Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Alexandria, where the Potomac River Generating Station has long stirred controversy.

Many public health and environmental advocates say too little attention has been paid to facilities such as Fisk and Crawford -- "legacy" plants grandfathered in under the 1977 Clean Air Act and largely exempted from its requirement that facilities use the best pollution-control technology.

"Those are the clunkers of the power-plant world," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "What we're dealing with here is the Cuban auto fleet -- a bunch of facilities built in the 1950s and early 1960s that are continuing to be rebuilt over and over. That's not the way the law was intended to work."

Advocates hope the climate-control legislation pending in Congress would force these plants to close. But they also warn that, depending how various aspects of the bill play out, it could instead motivate companies to increase their reliance on archaic plants.

If a climate-change bill drives up the cost of opening new plants, but provides free emissions allowances or potential carbon offsets for existing facilities, companies could have an incentive to squeeze even more power out of their old plants, many of which are running well below capacity.

Some environmental groups are urging the Senate to include in its version of the legislation provisions to prevent that. But the legislation passed by the House in late June -- known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- mandates a 50 percent carbon reduction by 2025 for new plants, but puts no site-specific carbon-reduction requirements on existing facilities.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Regulatory Enforcement, said the new legislation is widely viewed as a panacea. "But by establishing requirements for new plants and then effectively exempting the old ones," he said, "you create the same disconnect that has created problems under the Clean Air Act."

But Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute industry group, said power companies will probably close their oldest plants if a cap is put on carbon, since it would be least efficient to invest in carbon capture or other greenhouse-gas-reduction technology at those plants.

A climate bill, he said, "will have a big impact on the older fleet of power plants."

Public health advocates say these urban power plants can pose a threat to local residents, with ozone-forming compounds and particulate matter exacerbating respiratory and cardiac problems. A 2001 study by a Harvard School of Public Health professor suggested that the two Chicago plants could cause 41 premature deaths and 550 emergency room visits per year.

For years, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago city councilmen, and national and local groups have tried to force Midwest Generation, the Edison International subsidiary that owns Fisk and Crawford, to install modern technology to catch particulate matter and remove sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Two weeks ago, several environmental groups -- including Urbaszewski's organization as well as the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Sierra Club -- said they will sue the company for violating federal standards on particulate matter. Two years ago, the EPA filed a notice asserting that the company's six Illinois plants violated these and other standards.

Midwest Generation spokesman Doug McFarlan said the company is being targeted unfairly because of "heightened sensitivities" around the Chicago plants. He said Midwest Generation's plants release less particulate matter than most plants, many of which are not cited by the EPA.

McFarlan said the company has also responded to local concerns by shrinking the size of Crawford's coal pile and by reducing dust blowing off barges that transport its coal. Since buying the plants a decade ago, it has reduced emissions by as much as 60 percent, he said.

"We really believe we have demonstrated environmental responsibility at those plants," McFarlan said. "We don't hide the fact that there are emissions from our plants, but there are lots of other sources, too, other industries and cars and trucks going through there with emissions much closer to the ground."

Environmental groups hope their lawsuit will spur the EPA to move faster in addressing the company's notice of violation. If an agreement between EPA and the company is not reached, the Department of Justice could sue the company.

"We don't mind people urging us on -- we feel the urgency ourselves," said George Czerniak, head of air enforcement for EPA Region 5, which includes Chicago.

In 2006, Midwest Generation made a deal with the state to reduce emissions at its plants. Mercury controls were installed last summer. The company must install scrubbers at Fisk by 2015 and at Crawford by 2018. McFarlan said company officials have not decided whether they will install the expensive machinery or shut the plants down.

The parent company supported the House-passed legislation. And in anticipation of a climate bill capping greenhouse gas emissions, Midwest Generation is shifting its focus to renewable energy, including construction of a 240-megawatt wind farm in central Illinois.

NRDC staff attorney Shannon Fisk said Midwest Generation's renewable-energy efforts may reduce total carbon emissions, but will not do anything to help neighbors of the Chicago plants.

"These are two dinosaurs in the middle of a large city," he said. "They should have cleaned up decades ago. Running those plants is inexpensive for the company, but it's very expensive for public health."

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