Environmentalists and labor groups were strongly divided at an Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) hearing in Springfield Tuesday over whether the Texas-based energy company Dynegy should be granted more time to meet the state's clean air standards for five local coal-fired power plants it plans to buy. Progress Illinois was there for the hearing.
Environmental and labor groups were strongly divided at an Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) hearing in Springfield Tuesday over whether the Texas-based energy company Dynegy Inc. should be granted more time to meet the state's clean air standards for five local coal-fired power plants it plans to buy.
Dynegy, working as Illinois Power Holdings, wants to purchase the five coal plants in southern and central Illinois from St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. The deal, however, hinges on whether IPCB hands the company a pollution variance, which would give Illinois Power Holdings until 2020 to comply with state Multi-Pollutant Standards.
The company's petition, submitted to IPCB in July, seeks the same relief as the existing variance granted to Ameren in September 2012, which allowed the company to put off installing technology to help curb soot pollution for five years. The Dynegy subsidiary maintains that following the current standards would cause undue financial hardship, a claim Ameren also made.
Environmentalists and those impacted by air pollution, however, say they are skeptical of the proposed sale.
"(Dynegy's) whole argument is that Illinois Power Holdings doesn't have enough money to pay for these life-saving pollution controls, but we know it's because they’ve carefully set up this deal so that this small subsidiary is completely underfunded," said Kady McFadden, field organizer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign in Illinois. "They don’t have money to pay for Post-it Notes in their office, let alone run coal plants that are old and break down easily."
But Vice President of Illinois Power Holdings Dan Thompson took that argument to task during his testimony, saying the company is set to have $221 million in cash and $160 million in working capital available on day one of the sale's closing.
Thompson also pushed backed on air pollution concerns raised by enviornmental groups. The company, he said, would advance the environmental improvements Ameren has already made at its plants, which are located in Fulton, Jasper, Massac, Montgomery and Peoria counties. If the company gained ownership of the coal plants, Illinois Power Holdings has committed to reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from the energy centers by more 7,700 tons through 2020, Thomson said at the hearing, which was attended by more than 200 people.
IPCB granting the variance to Illinois Power Holdings would put an end to the "great uncertainty" about what would become of local jobs and economies, he stressed. Ameren announced back in March that it was selling its fleet and exiting Illinois' power generation business, leading to the alleged "uncertainty" Thompson referred to in his testimony.
"The transaction with Ameren was constructed to achieve stability and ensure continuity in employment, as well as protecting the pension obligations," he added. "The request for variance is the best opportunity for continuing operation of these plants and preserving the high-paying jobs and economic investments for the communities."
Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, also attended the hearing, along with more than 50 Illinois power plant workers. Carrigan said it's crucial that the more than 600 high-paying jobs that currently exist at the facilities stay there.
"It's critical times. We're fighting for every job we possibly can," he told Progress Illinois. "I think it's important to underscore this isn’t about noncompliance that (Ameren Energy Resources) or (Illinois Power Holdings) isn’t saying we won't comply with these regulatory requirements. It's just saying we need additional time, no different than anybody getting hit with a big bill. You need to pay for it over time."
Those also in support of the variance at the hearing included Illinois State Reps. Brad Halbrook (R-Charleston), Brandon Phelps (R-Harrisburg), Wayne Rosenthal, (R-Morrisonville) and State Sen. Andy Manar (D–Bunker Hill), among other elected officials who represent areas that house the coal plants. The state lawmakers say losing the energy centers in their districts would "cripple" local economies.
Newton Mayor Mark Bolander added that about 50 percent of his city's property tax revenue comes from the Newton power plant, 41 percent of which goes toward local schools.
"If the Newton energy center shuts down, so will our schools, the city of Newton and Jasper County," he said. "The economic impact will be insurmountable, and the ripple from this devastation will affect not only Jasper County, but also surrounding counties."
Joyce Blumenshine, who lives within 12 miles of the Edwards plant in Peoria County, said her community is already facing devastation — from pollution. She said it's about time for energy-production companies to comply with Illinois Multi-Pollutant Standards, which have been in place since 2006.
"Here's this company trying to get an exemption from air permits that should be a cost of doing business," Blumenshine argued. "There's no assurances that they’ll continue employment levels. There's no assurances that they have actually got a cleanup plan for these plants, and that is really distressing."
During public comment, Wheaton resident and double lung-transplant recipient Dan Dolan-Laughlin said that although he doesn't live near a coal plant, he represents the millions of people in the state whose lives depend on the ability to breather clean air.
"I support efforts to employ as many Illinoisans as possible, and to take advantage of investments in our state, but only if it is done responsibly, and to the benefit of our citizens," he told the pollution control board. "We don't give polluting automobile owners a multi-year pass on emissions controls. The owners must bring them into compliance immediately, or their vehicles are taken out of service. That's the law."
The Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance delivered more than 8,000 petitions against Dynegy's pollution waiver request to the board at Tuesday's hearing.
IPCB is expected to hand down its decision regarding the variance request before Thanksgiving.