CHICAGO – Chicago’s two aging coal-fired power plants, long blamed for illnesses in two largely Hispanic neighborhoods, will shut down several years earlier than expected under a deal announced Wednesday by a coalition of environmental, health and community groups.
Midwest Generation agreed to close its Fisk Generating Station by the end of the year and its Crawford Generating Station by the end of 2014, said Faith Bugel, senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. Chicago is the only large U.S. city with two coal-fired plants still operating within its borders.
The company already had said it would sharply reduce emissions at the plants or close them by 2015 and 2018, respectively. But the Chicago Clean Power Coalition and city officials pressured the company to close them sooner, complaining the plants contributed to high rates of asthma and other health problems in the city’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods
“People in the communities around the plant lived with this pollution for a long, long time,” Bugel, who helped negotiate the deal, said. Closing the plants early “is a big benefit to everybody from ... four extra years of improved air quality.”
Midwest Generation officials didn’t immediately return a phone call for comment Wednesday.
In exchange for the closures, Bugel said the Environmental Law & Policy Center and other environmental groups agreed to withdraw from a federal lawsuit against the company. The suit was filed by the Justice Department over claims the company had upgraded its plants without installing pollution control equipment.
The groups also agreed to support a one-year extension of a deadline for Midwest to clean up or shut down one of its operating units at a coal-fired plant in Waukegan. The original deadline was 2013 for that unit and 2014 for a second unit at the same site, Bugel said. Now the deadline will be the same for both, if the Illinois Pollution Control Board agrees, she said.
She said the trade-off was a good one, because pollution from the Chicago plants drifted toward Waukegan in the summer.
The plants, both built in the early 1900s, are among the smallest coal-fired electric generators in Illinois, and together generate enough electricity to power about 1 million homes, according to the company’s website. But their proximity to heavily populated areas made them a concern.
Activists for years have complained about the tons of lung- and heart-damaging pollution emitted by the Fisk and Crawford plants, and that they disproportionately affected low-income and minority neighborhoods. The plants were not subject to more stringent rules imposed on newer plants because they were built in the early 1900s, long before the Clean Air Act.
Midwest Generation has upgraded some pollution controls at the plants in recent years, including controlling 90 percent of mercury emissions. But it still emitted high levels of soot and greenhouse gases.
An ordinance introduced in 2010 to force the company to clean up soot pollution or close the plants within two years never made it out of the City Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee.
But after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office last May, he made it clear that he wanted to company to act on pollution concerns, and that helped kick-start discussions last fall between the coalition members and the company that led to the agreement, Bugel said. Emanuel also supported a deal that would have helped Midwest get long-term contracts with the state to buy electricity from company’s wind farms, but House Speaker Michael Madigan refused to call a bill for a vote.
Emanuel recently gave the company a deadline to settle the matter, and aldermen said they were prepared to act on the ordinance if the talks failed.
Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton would not confirm whether there will be a separate agreement between Midwest Generation and the city.
Community activists celebrated the agreement, and said they’re now focused on making sure the sites get cleaned up and reused once the plants shut down. They said Midwest Generation has agreed to establish a community advisory council.
“We are super happy about this ... but we want to also make sure we look forward and are on top of what’s coming,” said Nelson Soza, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance. The company and the city “want to make sure this is not just another site contaminated and just forgotten inside a fence, and we ... would like some clean jobs.”
Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization said a city ordinance would have marked a national victory by setting standards for pollution, but the settlement got the plants closed more quickly and avoided drawn-out litigation.
“This is a victory in so many ways,” he said.