In 2006, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich heralded a major environmental compromise with Ameren for which the St. Louis energy company would spend $1.6 billion to reduce mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in their Illinois coal-fired power plants.
Today, environmentalists fear that deal is in jeopardy after the Illinois Pollution Control Board granted Ameren a five-year extension Thursday for meeting new sulfur dioxide pollution standards. The company now has until 2020, instead of 2015, to meet the standards through installing pollution control equipment at their 1,186-megawatt plant in Newton.
Ameren contended that the double whammy of the economic downturn and lower electricity rates caused by the rise in natural gas competitors forced a delay in compliance.
But Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, does not see how Ameren will have the money to install the pollution equipment by 2020 if they do not have the cash to comply by 2015. “They went in with their tale of woe, but did not show that anything would be different in five years,” Alexander says. “They are basically asking for indefinite relief.”
Also, environmentalists dispute the Pollution Control Board's finding that an extra five years to comply will not cause significant environmental harm. Jennifer Cassel, an attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, estimates that 16,000 additional tons in sulfur dioxide annually will result from the delay.
There is no precise measurement as to how these extra tons correlate with the respiratory illnesses associated with sulfur dioxide. Cassel points to a 2010 National Research Council study that estimates each ton of sulfur dioxide emitted from Ameren’s coal plant fleet in 2005 resulted in $4,850 to $6,580 in public health costs, such as trips to the hospital.
Alexander says that, “It is a pretty straightforward matter that we know coal plants contribute to illness and deaths, even though they aren’t definite numbers.”
Ameren defends itself as a responsible corporate citizen that is important to the rural Illinois economy. Company spokeswoman Samantha Hagar points out that the company reduced pollution emissions through the closing of its Meredosia and Hutsonville plants at the end of last year. Hagar states that without the ruling the company would have had to close two additional plants, placing hundreds of jobs in jeopardy.
It is unclear what the ruling’s long-term ramifications are for state energy policy. The five-member Pollution Control board is a self-described “quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial body” operating outside the policy guidelines of the Pat Quinn administration. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency did not take a position on whether Ameren should get the extension.
The decision does impact other players in the state’s distressed coal industry.
Houston-based Dynergy, which operates four coal-fired power plants in Illinois, will go forward with their plan to control sulfur dioxide instead of also asking for their own delay. Company spokeswoman Katy Sullivan says that, “We are definitely at a competitive disadvantage right now, but we’ve made the investment in the control technology.”
Midwest Generation, the subsidiary of California-based Edison International, has not indicated whether they will apply for their own extension. The struggling company closed down two Chicago coal plants this year, but still operates four facilities within the state.