With just five words quietly slipped into legislation, Illinois lawmakers are moving to include tire burning in the state's definition of renewable energy, a change that would benefit a south suburban incinerator with a long history of pollution problems.
Adding the "incineration or burning of tires" to a measure intended to boost wind and solar energy would clear the way for Geneva Energy to reap lucrative green energy credits for its troubled incinerator in Ford Heights, one of the poorest suburbs in the U.S.
The legislative change also would make the tire burner a player in the growing market for renewable energy in Illinois, where power companies must get at least 10 percent of their electricity from green sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.
Originally sponsored by Rep. David Miller a Dolton Democrat running for state comptroller, the measure would give tire burning, which generates large amounts of toxic air pollution, the same status as pollution-free wind and solar power. It apparently is designed to benefit the state's sole tire incinerator, in Miller's district.
A House committee approved Miller's bill last week, days after an investigator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's civil rights division interviewed state officials about the tire burner. The agency is probing whether Illinois violated environmental justice laws by allowing the incinerator to operate in Ford Heights, a small village about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, where more than 95 percent of the population is black and half live in poverty.
If the legislation pending on the House floor is approved, it would not only add tire incineration to the state's renewable energy law but also revoke a specific ban that says green power "does not include the incineration or burning of tires."
The bill is similar to one adopted in West Virginia, which also made coal waste eligible for renewable energy credits. In Ohio, lawmakers rejected the idea last year.
"This is the sort of cynical legislative maneuvering that makes people question the credibility of our elected officials," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Burning tires is not clean, renewable energy by any credible definition."
After learning about the incinerator bill, environmental groups are mobilizing to block it from passing out of the House this week.
The lobbying already might have had an effect. Miller, an assistant House majority leader, took his name off the measure last week shortly after a committee approved his amendment. He didn't return phone calls, instructing a receptionist to tell a Tribune reporter that it "no longer was his bill."
"It's one of those last-minute bills that just doesn't make sense," said Rep. Karen May, a Highland Park Democrat who voted against the bill. "No matter what its supporters say, the average citizen is going to scratch their heads about this one."
The green energy credits that the incinerator would qualify for under the legislation are commodities traded by emerging financial markets, similar to pork bellies and cattle futures. They are intended to encourage more renewable, pollution-free energy and curb the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
The federal government considers incineration one of the least desirable ways to dispose of the nearly 300 million scrap tires Americans produce each year. Once piled into landfills, shredded tires increasingly are being recycled in asphalt, playground cushioning, athletic tracks and other products.
The Ford Heights incinerator, one of only a handful of tire burners nationwide, has been plagued by environmental and financial problems since it opened in the mid-1990s. Under the incinerator's previous owners, the pollution problems were so bad that Illinois EPA inspectors visited the site several times a month.
The company had trouble finding buyers for its electricity after lawmakers repealed generous subsidies. It declared bankruptcy in 2004 after the plant's turbine exploded, shutting down the operation.
Despite widespread concerns about incineration, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration gave a new group of owners a chance to make the tire burner work in 2005. The administration agreed with investors who pitched incineration as a novel way to keep tires out of landfills.
"We certainly expect to run the plant differently than it was run before," Emmitt George, one of the owners of Geneva Energy, told the Tribune that year.
Environmental and community groups have long criticized what they consider lax pollution limits for the tire burner. Opponents object to, among other things, a lack of routine monitoring for hazardous, cancer-causing chemicals emitted by tire incineration, including benzene, butadiene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
The state tests continuously only for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and soot — other pollutants that contribute to the region's dirty-air problems.
Because the plant doesn't burn oil or coal, it isn't required to report its emissions to the Toxics Release Inventory, a federal database that allows citizens to track industrial pollution in their communities.
While the incinerator is equipped with pollution controls, its new owners have been accused repeatedly of violating the same environmental laws as the previous operators. Illinois EPA inspectors have cited the plant four times since 2006 for exceeding limits on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, according to state records.
"Those violations speak for themselves," said Keith Harley, a Chicago lawyer who represents a south suburban community group fighting the incinerator.
Company officials did not return telephone calls.
Jobs are scarce in Ford Heights, where the median household income is $17,500, less than a third of the median in Cook County.
Miller has pushed environmental legislation to benefit a controversial polluter in the suburb before. In 2004, Blagojevich vetoed another Miller-sponsored bill after the Tribune reported it would have shielded an illegal Ford Heights dump from EPA inspectors.
Miller and other supporters said the landfill, operated by a businessman facing criminal charges for another illegal dump nearby, would be turned into a ski slope that would draw investment to Ford Heights.