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
"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
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
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
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