Lake County residents and environmentalists are asking the new owner of Waukegan’s aging coal-fired power plant to produce a long-term transition plan for the facility in collaboration with local community stakeholders.
Toting signs reading "Clean air wins" and "It's time for a clean and healthy lakefront," about 25 members of the Clean Power Lake County Campaign mailed more than 2,500 petition postcards on Tuesday to New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc. The petition calls on the company to set a retirement date for the 90 year-old Waukegan plant, located on the city's lakefront, and make investments in clean energy projects that will hire local workers. A transition plan for the outdated plant should also consider the city of Waukegan's tax base as well as those currently employed at the site, the petition states.
"We believe this requires a community engagement plan for the lakefront, and we would like to work with NRG to think through new, clean energy investments for our community," said Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, a Clean Power Lake County Campaign supporter. "(NRG) is investing in renewable energy projects all across the country, and it's time that they look here in Waukegan and Lake County to make those investments and to create new, clean energy jobs for our community."
Back in mid-March, NRG finalized its purchase of Midwest Generation's parent company Edison Mission Energy, which filed for bankruptcy in late 2012. As part of the $2.6 billion deal, NRG acquired four of Midwest Generation's coal-fired electric generation plants in Illinois, including the Waukegan facility, and other wind and natural gas sites in the state. NRG officially stepped in on April 1 as owner of the Waukegan plant, which burns some 7,000 tons of coal each day and reportedly produces power for more than 550,000 consumers.
A NRG spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment. In a March interview with the Chicago Tribune, a company spokesman said NRG might weigh the possibility of converting the four coal-fired power plants to natural gas.
Coalition members said they plan to meet next week with NRG officials to start a dialogue about the future of the plant.
"For months and months, we've been waiting to hear what the future of this plant will be," said Waukegan resident and coalition member Susana Figueroa with Faith in Place.
"We believe it's time for NRG to step forward with a plan that will ensure the health of our community and environment and help us move toward a clean energy future for Waukegan," she said outside of the Waukegan post office, located at 326 N. Genesee St., before the petition postcards were mailed.
The Clean Power Lake County Campaign, made up of several community organizations, faith, public health and environmental groups, began to collect petition postcards during the sale process of Edison Mission Energy to NRG.
Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs with the Respiratory Health Association, said NRG will have to make a lot of upgrades at the Waukegan facility if the company continues to operate it as a coal-fired power plant.
Back in February of 2012, Midwest Generation agreed to shut down its Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants in Chicago earlier than originally planned. And in exchange for closing those two plants early, the company was able to put off the installation of pollution controls at its Waukegan site until 2014.
Also, in April of 2013, the Illinois Pollution Control Board gave Midwest Generation a two-year extension to comply with the state's pollution standards at its four operating power plants in Illinois, due to financial reasons.
"Those dates are coming up pretty quickly," said Urbaszewski, explaining that the deadlines still apply even though the plants are under new ownership. "It takes months to build the [pollution control] equipment. (NRG officials have) got to make a decision very soon" about the fate of the Waukegan plant.
Urbaszewski pointed out that NRG's President and CEO David Crane "has been all over the business press ... talking about the future of clean energy and how his company, that's where they're going, that's what they want to invest in."
"They're developing some of the largest clean energy solar projects in the country," he continued. "He's talking the talk. The question is, is he going to walk the walk? What are they specifically going to do here in Waukegan? People understand what he's saying about the future of clean energy and where things are going. (Residents) want it to start here, and as soon as possible."
Here's more from Urbaszewski and Figueroa on the issue:
Kathleen Long with the Most Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish of Waukegan added that the lakefront community has "been plagued by pollution and contamination" for too long.
"We must forge a new path forward that moves beyond our industrial past," she said. "Our community members want ... to swim and fish in Lake Michigan without being worried about mercury or other dangerous pollutants. They want to walk along the shores of our beach without worrying about the air pollution coming from the coal plant. We believe a future without the current facility will create new economic opportunities for Waukegan, and our community members will be healthier."
UPDATE 7/2/14: NRG spokesman David Gaier issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to the Clean Power Lake County Campaign's news conference on Tuesday:
As we’ve discussed directly with the Sierra Club, we’re currently evaluating our investment options regarding our Illinois fleet, which we acquired only in April. We have in fact reached out on a number of occasions already to meet with community leaders and stakeholders, to introduce ourselves and provide a general idea of our decision timeframe. We understand the importance of our facilities to jobs, tax base and the environment, and we don’t take these decisions lightly. We appreciate Sierra Club’s recognition of NRG’s significant investment in clean energy—we’re the third-largest renewable generator in the U.S.—and we believe they can understand that we haven’t yet completed the analysis of our Illinois assets.