As local activists honored Mayor Rahm Emanuel this week for brokering a deal that scuttled two coal-fired power plants in Chicago, three women gathered around a dining room table in suburban Will County couldn't help but feel left out.
For nearly two decades, the self-taught environmental watchdogs have been clamoring for a cleanup of coal plants outside Joliet and Romeoville that are far dirtier than the Chicago generators. Owned by Midwest Generation, the same company that last month shut down the Fisk plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village, the two Will County plants remain among the biggest industrial sources of noxious air pollution that affects the entire region.
While the successful campaign against Fisk and Crawford drew national attention and has been hailed as major step forward from Chicago's smog-choked history, it sapped energy and manpower from a larger struggle to clean up all of Midwest Generation's coal plants, including others in north suburban Waukegan and Pekin in central Illinois.
Environmental groups that applauded Emanuel at a lakefront reception Tuesday agreed to drop a lawsuit against the company in return for the closings of the two Chicago plants — with one notable exception. The Will County women refused to go along, and their nonprofit group is pressing on with legal action.
"It's great that those Chicago plants got shut down, but we need help, too," said Carol Stark, one of three directors of a grass-roots organization dubbed Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, or CARE. "It's also important for people to know that the pollution from Joliet and Romeoville doesn't stay here. It blows toward Chicago and causes problems there."
Built by ComEd during the 1950s and '60s in a heavily industrialized corridor along the Des Plaines River, the two Will County coal plants are among dozens nationwide that started generating electricity before Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act. Regulators at the time exempted older power plants from the toughest provisions of the law after utilities vowed they wouldn't be running much longer.
Midwest Generation bought ComEd's fleet of Illinois coal plants in 1999 and kept them running amid a flurry of scientific studies linking coal plant pollution to health problems, including cancer, respiratory ailments and heart disease. Unlike newer coal plants, the Midwest Generation plants are not equipped with most advanced pollution controls that sharply reduce lung-damaging soot and other harmful air pollution.
The Joliet plant alone emits more smog-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide than the two recently shuttered Chicago plants did combined, according to federal records.
A 2010 report by the National Research Council estimated that pollution from the Romeoville plant costs surrounding areas $187 million a year in hidden health costs, compared with $127 million for neighborhoods near the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago.
Under a 2006 deal with state officials, Midwest Generation agreed to clean up or shut down all of its plants by 2018. But the company is struggling to avoid bankruptcy proceedings and has signaled it might seek to extend its deadline.
Doug McFarlan, a company spokesman, said Midwest Generation already has taken several steps to reduce pollution from its coal plants, including switching to low-sulfur coal, installing anti-pollution equipment and, at some plants, closing older units. As a result, the company's fleet generated more electricity last year than it did in 1999 but emitted less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.
The company also has invested in pollution-free wind power. Yet in financial documents, Midwest Generation has told investors it plans to delay installing additional pollution controls at its coal plants "for the maximum time available," noting that increased competition from natural gas plants has driven electricity prices lower and cut sharply into the company's bottom line.
Energy companies across the nation are facing the same market forces. During the past three years, utilities have announced the closings of more than 100 coal plants, most of which were older, dirtier and less efficient than newer coal plants or natural gas plants that are capturing a bigger share of the market.
"Our record as a company overall and in Will County is a national model for diversifying the portfolio for electric power and for the environmentally responsible use of coal," McFarlan said in an email response to questions. "To eliminate the use of coal would irresponsibly risk maintaining a reliable, affordable supply of electricity."
The three women who lead CARE, the Will County environmental group, organized in 1995 after ComEd announced that it planned to test whether it could safely burn coal waste at the Romeoville plant. The company later abandoned the idea, but members of the grass-roots group kept learning more about pollution from nearby industries, became familiar with the arcane details of environmental regulations and started showing up at permit hearings.
Earlier this year, Ellen Meeks Rendulich and another CARE volunteer flew to Los Angeles for the shareholders meeting of Midwest Generation's parent company. They told investors about black clouds of soot churning out of coal plant smokestacks, raised concerns about toxic coal ash waste dumped into a Will County quarry and presented 6,800 petition signatures urging the company to follow through on its promises to clean up.
"We told them these plants have been polluting our air for years and it's disgusting," Rendulich said this week during an interview at her home on a wooded bluff near the Romeoville plant. "If they're so interested in wind power, they should be getting out of coal and retraining their workers for renewable energy jobs."
Though national and Chicago-based environmental groups dropped out of the lawsuit against Midwest Generation, the Will County group still has powerful allies. The U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan remain parties in a case before a federal appeals court that accuses the power company of violating the Clean Air Act.
The lawsuit alleges that pollution from Midwest Generation coal plants makes it difficult for Chicago and the collar counties to comply with soot and smog standards intended to reduce deaths and illnesses throughout the region.
But unlike the emotional and well-publicized debate about the Chicago coal plants, efforts to clean up the rest of Midwest Generation's fleet remain relatively obscure. Activists have not scaled smokestacks and unfurled protest banners as they did at the Fisk plant last year. Nor have there been any prayer vigils, street theater or throngs of protesters in matching T-shirts — tactics that drew attention to the concerns of people living near the Chicago plants.
"We just keep doing the research, showing up at the meetings and telling people we're all breathing this dirty air," said Sandy Burcenski, another CARE volunteer. "But even when we try to educate our own town, it's tough to get through. It can really be frustrating."
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