Education and health professionals joined environmental advocates this week to call on state officials to deny a request from downstate power provider Ameren to delay compliance with more stringent pollution-control regulation of its coal-fired power plants.
In a letter addressed to members of the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB), 96 physicians, researchers and healthcare professionals urged the body to uphold standards that would require coal-fired plants to significantly reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by January 1, 2015.
The issue stems from a 2006 agreement between the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the state's three largest coal-fired utilities - Midwest Generation, Dynegy and Ameren.
Under the terms of the deal, known as the Illinois Multi-Pollutant Standards, the companies agreed to reduce emission levels of sulfur dioxide by 65 percent by 2015, and in exchange, they were allowed flexibility in meeting state requirements to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent beginning in 2013.
In May, Ameren subsidiary, Ameren Energy Resources, filed a petition with IPCB requesting to push back the compliance date to 2020. The compan says the economic downturn has left the company without the means to finance the equipment improvements needed to meet the requirements by the deadline.
According to the company, failure to grant the extension would mean the closure of one or two of Ameren's plants, located in downstate Joppa, Bartonville and Newton, which would result in the loss of as many as 170 jobs in Jasper County alone.
In its petition to IPCB, the company warned that the loss of those facilities closures "would be disruptive to AER and its employees, the local communities, equipment suppliers and contractors, state taxing authorities and already struggling local school districts. The additional time AER seeks due to hardship will provide the needed time to allow recovery of the power market."
Similar sentiment was expressed by Newton Mayor Mark Bolander in his letter to the Pollution Board, discussing the impact closing the Newton plant would have on the city of more than 2,800.
"Approximately 50 percent of our property taxes come from the Newton Power Station," Bollander wrote. "Forty-one percent of that goes to our school district. If the Newton Power Station shuts down, so will our schools, the City of Newton and Jasper County. The tsunami created will be insurmountable."
According to Faith Bugel, senior air attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the grounds in which Ameren has based its request were unwarranted given the amount of time the energy supplier has had to prepare for the 2015 compliance date.
"So here we are in 2012, six years after this deal was passed, and at this time Ameren has already received the flexibility and leniency on mercury [reduction requirements]," Bugel said. "And now, when it comes time for Ameren to uphold their end of the bargain and hit certain sulfur dioxide reductions, they are actually asking to get out of their end of the bargain."
Although sympathetic to economic concerns, Bugel said allowing Ameren to go five more years without complying to the emission-reduction standards would have a significant environmental impact. "Over the years, our calculation is that there would be 35,000 extra tons of SO2," Bugel said.
According to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council report, Illinois power plants were ranked as the 16th worst emitters of toxic air pollutants in the U.S., releasing as much as 4.6 million pounds in 2010.
According to the Clean Air Task Force, toxic coal-fired power plant emissions are responsible for 621 premature deaths, 455 hospital visits and more than 1,000 heart attacks in Illinois annually. In Cook County, plant pollutants have been attributed to 150 deaths, 232 heart attacks and more than 2,700 asthma attacks each year.
Based on such numbers, Chicago Physicians for Responsibility Executive Director Dr. Sarah Lovinger warned that the potential health implications for residents should not be overshadowed because of economic concerns.
"I've witnessed patients struggle for air, and I believe that it is unconscionable for us to allow a company to place profits before the right to breathe," Lovinger said. "What use is it to have clean air standards if they are not enforced?"
IPCB is expected to hand down a decision on Ameren's request by September 20. According to James Gignac, environmental and energy counsel for the Illinois Attorney General 's Office, in order for Ameren to receive an extension, the company would need to prove it has looked into and exhausted all possible options toward improving reduction of its plants emissions.
"Ameren needs to prove that the need for a variance outweighs the public harm caused by the variance, and the company hasn't done that," Gignac said. "If Ameren can sustain its burden of proving that it needs the variance, the PCB should consider a two-year variance and have us all look at this issue in two years to see where things stand."
In an email response, Ameren Energy Resources spokesman Brian Bretsch said the company has remained compliant with MPS, and that it was "fully committed" to reducing emissions. He added that to date, Ameren had invested more than $1 billion on pollution control equipment.
"We remain dedicated to Illinois and to securing a cleaner energy future," Bretsch wrote. "We are optimistic the IPCB will work with us toward our mutually beneficial goals."