PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday November 8th, 2013, 4:38pm

Environmental, Labor Groups Hold Dueling Chicago Rallies Over EPA Pollution Limits For Power Plants (VIDEO)

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a day-long listening session in Chicago Friday about proposed carbon regulations for existing power plants, groups on various sides of the issue spoke out at rallies held downtown. Progress Illinois provides a snapshot of the events.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a day-long listening session in Chicago Friday about proposed carbon regulations for existing power plants, groups on various sides of the issue spoke out at rallies held downtown.

Environmentalists and public health advocates from across the Midwest staged a rally at Federal Plaza Friday afternoon, calling on the EPA to enact the strongest possible limits on carbon pollution from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. Earlier this morning, state business leaders and labor groups also met at the plaza, saying any new carbon pollution regulations for already-operating power plants would put thousands of Illinois coal-related jobs at risk and lead to higher electricity bills.

The EPA is holding 11 public listening sessions across the country, with Friday's meeting taking place at the EPA's Chicago regional office, to hear from the public on the issue. The EPA's rules are a component of President Barack Obama's climate action plan released in June. The EPA is expected to release its proposal on the matter in June 2014, which would be followed by another public comment period.

A few hundred people turned out for the afternoon rally, where activists carried signs reading, "EPA: protect us from killer pollution" and "Big coal and big oil make us sick."

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, stressed that power plants are the number one source of carbon pollution "that's pushing our planet to the brink."

Illinois was recently ranked the seventh dirtiest state when it comes to carbon pollution from its power plants, a new report from the Environment Illinois Research and Education Center found

The environmental activists stressed that the country needs to ditch coal and make a faster shift towards renewable energy.

"There are some in our country, and there are some folks here today, who are very worried about the changes that may come as we move towards clean energy in the country, but we also know that moving towards clean energy in this country is going to help avert a lot of the costs of climate change and it's going to create huge new economic opportunity all around this country," Hitt said.

Here's more from Hitt and the rally:

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Katie Mimnaugh, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has asthma, said every person should have the right to breathe clean, fresh air.

"Instead of relying on coal, which is being brought down by market forces anyways, why don't we invest in cleaner alternatives," she asked. "Introducing strong carbon pollution standards gives us an opportunity to modernize our communities and create more clean energy jobs. It's a win-win for our future here in Illinois."

Mimnaugh went on to say that today's youth have to "grow old on this planet."

"We'll be damned if we sit back and let other people ruin it for us," she added.

Failing to enact the strictest limits on carbon pollution from current power plants would continue to allow companies to "make money at the expense of our health and our community," stressed Cheryl Johnson with the People for Community Recovery, a group that educates communities about environmental justice.

"It's not just about polar bears," Johnson told the large crowd. "It's about us as human beings ... I want to tell [the] EPA, because ultimately it's not just about us, it's about them too, because pollution [does] not discriminate and it definitely [doesn't] go to heaven."

Also attending the afternoon rally was State Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign), who said he "stands with every citizen in Illinois who wants to breathe clean air and who cares about the future of their children."

Frerichs, who is running for state treasurer, also touted some of Illinois' climate-action achievements as part of the state's renewable portfolio standard. But he also acknowledged that much more work needs to be done. Here's more from Frerichs:

Meanwhile, the nearly 60 labor and business group members gathered Friday morning, arguing that the new pollution regulations mean increased electricity costs across the board. Businesses may have to pass those higher costs on to customers or be forced to layoff employees, according to the business groups. Tens of thousands of Illinois energy-related jobs, including coal mining, could be in jeopardy, according to the labor leaders in attendance.

“Coal provides over 40 percent of this nation’s energy, but if EPA is unchecked they're going to put out some regulations that would put coal out of business and coal burning power plants out of business,” said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association. “It’s going to put electricity prices out of business.”

The group also complained about the EPA's listening session meeting location, arguing that holding it in Chicago may provide a biased hearing due to the strong anti-coal movement in the city. Additionally, the location makes it difficult for coal-industry workers to attend.

“Our coal lies about 200 to 400 miles south, and we think EPA should be listening to us down there, but we’ve come up here,” Gonet said.

Robert Schwartz, president of Boilermakers Local 1 in Chicago, represents workers who help build and repair coal-fired boilers that generate electricity. Thousands of boilermakers could be impacted by the new EPA regulations, he said.

“These additional mandates are destroying what manufacturing we have left by increasing the cost of power," Schwartz stressed. "With a loss of jobs, we will be more dependent on foreign nations. We cannot depend on wind and solar energy when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind does not blow. They don’t generate electricity, we will be left in the dark."

Here’s more from Gonet as well as Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable:

Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of 19 state representatives and five state senators sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, saying “coal is vital to Illinois.”

“The state’s coal industry employs tens of thousands of workers and Illinois is one of the top coal producers in the country,” the letter reads. “New regulatory standards could result in significantly higher electricity bills for all residential customers and increased costs for small and large businesses. During a time when the Illinois economy is particularly precarious and with unemployment ranking the second highest in the nation, the new guidelines could also mean the end of good-paying jobs across the state.”

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