Clean air advocates and some progressive members of the Chicago City Council aren't waiting any longer for two coal-fired power plants to clean up their act.
For almost a decade now, environmental justice organizations have been fighting to clean up the two coal-fired power plants operated by energy company Midwest Generation in Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. It's clear why. Under a provision in the federal Clean Air Act, coal plants are required to undergo major modifications to upgrade their pollution controls -- steps Midwest Gen has all but ignored. As a result, the two facilities spew large quantities of soot and other pollutants into the city air (45,000 tons in the past three years, according to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition). A 2001 Harvard study estimated that those emissions cause 41 premature deaths and 550 emergency room visits annually for ailments like asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
State and federal action, however, has been slow. While the U.S. Justice Department, on behalf of Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, filed suit against Midwest Gen in federal court last year -- asserting that the plants violate the Clean Air Act -- the ensuing litigation could take years. State lawmakers also hammered out a deal in which the company agreed to install pollution control devices known as "scrubbers" at both plants , but not until 2015 at Fisk (Pilsen) and 2018 at Crawford (Little Village).
For clean air advocates and some progressive members of the Chicago City Council, that's just too long to wait. Tomorrow, Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) -- along with co-sponsors Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward), Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), Gene Shulter (47th Ward), and Sandi Jackson (7th Ward) -- plan to introduce an ordinance that would force Midwest Gen to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and particulates within the next four years. "We are here to act more quickly, to fill in those gaps," said Faith Bugel of the Environmental Law and Policy Center at a press conference this morning. "And those gaps are major." Watch the sponsors echo that sentiment during the City Hall event:
According to a summary of the ordinance provided to reporters, the measure will require the plants to limit emissions of "PM/PM10" pollution by 90 percent. It would also target "PM/2.5" pollution, a smaller particle that is currently unregulated. Stricter carbon dioxide limits guiding natural gas plants are included, as well. Once the news standards go into effect for years from now, monthly reports on emissions tests would also be required. "This is an unprecedented ordinance to deal with an unprecedented problem," said Bugel.
At tomorrow's full council meeting, the bill will likely be referred to the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities. While he doesn't have enough votes yet to secure passage, Moore was optimistic that his colleagues would sign on. A nudge from Mayor Richard Daley would certainly help. While Hizzoner has so far kept mum on the question of a city-wide coal ordinance, Moore was quick to point out that the Daley administration's own Climate Action Plan recommends upgrading existing coal plants.
If the ordinance ultimately passes, Midwest Gen will undoubtedly challenge its legitimacy in court on grounds that similar pollution control measures are being advanced at the federal or state level. After the press conference, Moore said the measure should stand up to legal scrutiny thanks to the city's "broad home rule authority" to protect public health: "I'm very confident that, if tried, we would prevail."