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A coal-gas plant – and more – for Southeast Side

Residents of the Southeast Side only learned about a proposed coal gasification plant when a bill providing ratepayer subsidies for the project was introduced — and quickly passed — in the state legislature’s recent lame duck session.

Though State Senator Donne Trotter (17th District) sponsored the bill, “none of our representatives informed us of this,” said Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Along with environmental and health groups, SETF is holding a town hall meeting on the proposal – Thursday, January 27, 6:30 p.m. at The Zone, 11731 S. Avenue O – because “the community needs to be informed,” she said.

It’s not the first time a project has snuck up on residents.  Last year a plan to build a police firing range in a sensitive natural area was discovered at the last minute.

The town hall will discuss possible environmental and health impacts of coal gasification and review other existing pollution sources and other new projects being proposed in the community.  It’s cosponsored by the Sierra Club, Respiratory Health Association, Calumet Ecological Park Association, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The Sierra Club has opposed the proposal, arguing that while coal gasification is cleaner than burning coal, it’s far dirtier than natural gas – and that the ratepayer subsidy would mean annual hikes of as much as $100 in heating bills.  The group points to ratepayer protections and competitive bidding in the state’s renewable energy program as a better model.

There are also concerns specific to the community’s residents.  “They’ll be processing coal and pet coke [carbon waste from oil refineries], and our experience is when they store coal and pet coke, we have coal dust,” Salazar said.  “People’s homes get covered in coal dust – and that means people are also breathing it in.”

In addition, she points to the environmental costs of mining coal, including destruction of downstate farmland and water quality.

As the Tribune recently reported, Leucadia National Corp. of New York wants to build the $3 billion plant on the site of a shuttered steel plant at 11400 S. Burley.  The deal still hinges on Governor Quinn’s approval of Trotter’s bill – which would require Illinois utilities to pruchase synthetic gas from the plant for 30 years – and on approval by the Illinois Pollution Control Board for transfer of pollution credits attached to the old steel facility to Leukadia.  Illinois EPA has repeatedly opposed such a transfer.

For Salazar, there’s a larger question:  “Why do we keep getting all the dirty industry?”

Along with the Calumet Ecological Park Assocation and others, SETF has worked to shut down landfills and reclaim natural areas in a neighborhood that’s hosted polluting industries for a century.  The area includes Chicago’s largest lakes (Calumet and Wolf) amidst the largest and most ecologically significant wetlands in the Midwest, with a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life, including endangered and threatened species.

In 2002 the Chicago Plan Commission adopted a Calumet Land Use Plan which identified 1,000 acres for industrial development and 4,000 acres for recreation and natural habitat.  The Ford Calumet Environmental Center is planned for the Hegewisch Marsh south and west of 130th and Torrence, an area the city is rehabilitating.

“We know the area is zoned industrial, but we’d like to see some clean industry,” Salazar said.

Now, in addition to the coal gas plant and the firing range, a liquid asphalt facility is being planned for 106th Street and a commercial composting facility for 122nd and Carondolet, a few blocks from homes in Hegewisch.

“We’re environmentalists, we support composting, but do we want it so close to residential areas?”  Salazar said.  She’s heard reports of problems with odors at similar facilities, and says Chicago Composts LLC hasn’t been forthcoming with information on carbon emissions.  (A new law exempts commercial composters from emissions standards.)

“The Southeast Side still gets the garbage,” she said.  “It’s in a prettier package, but it’s still garbage coming our way.”

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Category: coal, energy, environment, Southeast Side

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