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A hearing on coal plants, and an interesting endorsement

A broad-based coalition expects to turn out  hundreds of members Monday for hearings on an ordinance to clean up Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, a leading environmental group has endorsed the one mayoral candidate who has declined to support the ordinance.

The Chicago Clean Power Coalition will hold a press conference at City Hall on Monday, February 14, at 9:30 a.m., and Alderman Joe Moore and 16 co-sponsors of the ordinance will hold an ad hoc committee hearing starting at 10 a.m.

Public health experts will join elected officials and representatives of environmental and community groups in testifying on the ordinance.  Parents and youth will also testify about their personal experiences with the health impacts of pollution from the Fisk and Crawford plants operated by Midwest Generation on the Southwest Side.

The plants predate the Clean Air Act of 1977 and are exempted from its strongest provisions.  The ordinance would require them to meet modern standards.

“We’re trying to get as much motion as we can” on the ordinance, said Peter Gray of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Hearings by the council’s health and energy committees have been postponed for over 9 months under pressure from the Daley administration, he said.

Meanwhile, some eyebrows were raised by the Sierra Club’s endorsement of mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, the only candidate who failed to support the ordinance.  One community organizer working with the coalition called it “an interesting contradiction.”

In a candidates’ questionnaire on environmental issues, Emanuel withheld support for the ordinance and called for the plants to be cleaned up, but offered no timeframe.  Under an agreement with the state, stricter pollution controls will be applied starting in 2015 at Fisk and 2018 at Crawford.

In the group’s interview process, “it was clear to us he is committed to cleaning up or shutting down these plants,” said Becki Clayborn of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.  “If all other avenues have been exhausted, he would definitely support the ordinance.”

She added that “we believe the Clean Power Ordinance is the way to go, because we haven’t seen any action on the federal level.”

In January, candidate Miguel del Valle joined coalition members outside Fisk to support their efforts.

Environmental and community groups have been demanding the plants meet modern emissions standards for a decade.  A previous ordinance to clean up the plants was introduced in 2002.  In an advisory referendum the next year, voters in precincts around the plants supported that ordinance by margins of nearly 90 percent.

In 2002, a Harvard study found the two plants, which emit thousands of tons of pollutions each year, are responsible for 40 premature deaths each year, hundreds of emergency room visits and thousands of asthma attacks.

Particulate matter pollution is associated with heart attacks, with chronic respiratory disease in children, and with premature death due to lung and heart disease, according to the US EPA.

A recent study by ELPC estimated that emissions from Fisk and Crawford cost the public $127 million a year in added health expenses.

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.”

Protest tar sands oil pipelines

Recent spills resulting from ruptures of pipelines carrying tar sands oil from western Canada undermine the assertion that Canadian crude is a safe alternative to dangerous offshore drilling, environmentalists say.

Local activists with the Rainforest Action Network and other groups were set to protest at the Candadian consulate here this afternoon, calling for a moratorium on all tar sands oil pipeline expansion in the U.S.

Recent spills near Kalamazoo, Michigan and in Romeoville, Illinois, occurred on the Lakehead pipeline operated by Canadian company Enbridge, part of a huge network of pipelines to bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

Enbridge and TransCanada, another Canadian pipeline company, are now at work on two multibillion-dollar pipeline expansions in Illinois, the Tribune reports.

Construction preliminaries for an Enbridge line through Illinois to a pipeline hub in downstate Patoka (previously covered here) have stalled since the Illinois Commerce Commission denied the company’s request to use eminent domain, said an attorney representing landowners opposed to the project.

“Enbridge doesn’t want to have to pay fair market value for the land they want,” said Thomas Pliura of LeRoy, Illinois.

Tar sands oil extraction destroys boreal forests and consumes vast quantities of water, and refining it produces toxic and carcinogenic pollution, as well as three or more times the carbon emissions of conventional oil, said Debra Michaud of RAN.

Michaud said the Canadian tar sands project is “the largest industrial project ever undertaken on the planet,” costing hundreds of billions of dollars and potentially covering an area the size of Florida.  (The $3.8 billion expansion of BP’s refinery in Whiting — which will double its capacity to handle tar sands oil — is the largest industrial project in Indiana’s history, she said.)

“What kind of a future are we investing in?” Michaud asked.  “Do we have the political will to invest in a future where our children and grandchildren can survive?  We’ve got to shift our priorities.”

The group’s action comes as a Utah state regulator gave the go-ahead for a tar sands oil project proposed by a Canadian company there, though critics say it would overwhelm the state’s already-stressed water supply.  It would be the first such project in the U.S.

In Washington, the House Transportation and Infrastrucuture Committee is holding a hearing on the Kalamazoo River spill tomorrow.

After that spill, Enbridge wouldn’t confirm that the pipeline carried tar sands oil, but recently mercury has been detected on the river’s bank – a telltale sign of the highly toxic Canadian crude, said Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

He said pipelines carrying tar sands oil may be at greater risk because bitumen in the product is highly corrosive and moving the thick oil requires higher pressure.

In Michigan, with Enbridge and federal regulators coming under fire for an inadequate system of inspections and monitoring, pipeline safety experts “are urging the state legislature to adopt new rules that will not leave Michigan reliant on an understaffed federal agency with inadequate regulatory authority,” the Michigan Messenger reported.

In Illinois, unlike many other states, regulation of existing oil pipelines is left to the federal government, said a spokesperson for the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The Tribune reports that oil companies have reported 117 spills in Illinois since 2000.

Clean Air and Water Show

Without a car, any Little Village resident going to the lakefront for the city’s Air and Water Show earlier this month would have had to take several buses – and probably walk a half mile or more in addition.

That’s just one of a number of issues to be raised by an alternative celebration, the Clean Air and Water Show, taking place this Saturday, August 28.

Sponsored by a coalition of grassroots environmental, community, labor and peace groups, the Clean Air and Water Show starts at noon with a rally for clean power at the Crawford coal-fired power plant in Little Village (34th and Pulaski).

Along with a sister plant in Pilsen, Crawford is the leading source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the city, said Michael Pitula of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

At 1 p.m. there’s a bike ride along the proposed route for a 31st Street bus line.  LVEJO has been organizing for restoration of the route for several years, pointing out that there’s a 25-block gap between east-west bus routes in Little Village – and that African American, Latino and Asian American communities on the South and Southwest Sides have no direct transit to the museum campus and lakefront beaches, Pitula said.

The route was eliminated in 1997, but since then several schools have opened, along with housing and shopping, in the area.  Restoring the route was first proposed by students at the new Little Village Lawndale High School, who pointed out that there’s no transportation for students who stay after school for tutoring, sports, or arts programs, Pitula said.

At LVEJO’s urging, the CTA applied for a federal Job Access Reverse Commute Grant and was awarded $1.1 million in 2009, contingent on coming up with matching funds. Then came a series of budget crises and service cuts.

LVEJO plans to ramp up efforts to identify local funding sources this fall, Pitula said; the federal funds must be returned if they aren’t used in the next year.  One idea is to ask the White Sox, Bears, and lakefront museums to kick in for matching funds.

“We need to turn the tide on service cuts,” he said.  “We’ve had a decade of service cuts, and it’s getting to the point that there’s not going to be much of a system left.”

At 3 to 6 p.m. there’s a Clean Air and Water Show at the 31st Street Beach, with skits, performances and speeches highlighting the value of clean energy and public transit for the health of Chicago residents – and as a source of jobs.

The contast to the military extravaganza staged by the city on the lakefront is intentional, Pitula said.

“It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “We can choose to spend our tax dollars on war or we can choose things like renewable energy and public transit.”

Clean Power spotlight on Solis after Munoz signs on

An grassroots campaign to win aldermanic support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance had its first victory yesterday when Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) signed on as a co-sponsor.  Meanwhile the other alderman representing a ward containing a coal plant, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), faces a protest outside a fundraising dinner tonight.

Solis has not endorsed the clean power ordinance, which would raise standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and particulates.

A press conference at 6:30 p.m. (Wednesday, August 4) and a “people’s dinner” outside Alhambra Palace Restaurant, 1240 W. Randolph, will highlight the group’s charge that Solis is “more concerned about his campaign donors than the health of neighborhood residents,” said Jerry Mead of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.

He said that Midwest Generation has been a major contributor to Solis’s campaigns.

Midwest Gen’s two Chicago plants, Fisk in Pilsen and Crawford in Little Village, cause premature deaths, ER visits and asthma attacks, and contribute to lung cancer and respiratory disease, according to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition.  The two plants are located in more densely populated areas than any other coal plants in the nation.

They are also among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the city, emitting 5 million metric tons – the equivalent of 872,000 cars – in 2007, according to the coalition.

In 2003 voters in a precinct near Fisk voted by nearly 90 percent in favor of tougher emission standards, Mead said.

In recent weeks PERRO and others have been petitioning residents at neighborhood festivals and churches.  “The response has been really good,” Mead said.  “It’s clear that people really favor the ordinance.”

Munoz announced his support for the ordinance Tuesday morning, citing congressional inaction on climate change and health concerns in his ward.

“For over eight years our communities have fought to clean up these plants, and we are glad Ald. Muñoz is responding to our cries for clean air,” said Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Oil spill in Michigan — new pipeline here?

Now it’s Canada geese that are covered in oil, and Michigan fish that are dying en masse.  And it’s 80 miles from Lake Michigan, and at this point it’s headed this way.

Meanwhile, the same energy company whose pipelines have ruptured in Michigan and Wisconsin is building a pipeline through central Illinois.

Some features of the oil spill on the Kalamazzo River are familiar – the company minimizing the scope of the disaster, the CEO declaring “significant progress” in cleaning it up, the charges of inadequate response, the news that warnings of corrosion were ignored and that inspection records are “spotty at best.”

This time, though, it’s also part of the desperate drive to profit from Canadian tar sands oil, with potential costs to the Midwest that are significant.

We noted a number of problems with the tar sands project last year – ammonia and mercury-laden sludge to be dumped in Lake Michigan (by BP) in order to refine the stuff; the threat to central Illinois farmland from a pipeline transporting it to the Gulf of Mexico; and of course the strip mining of Canada’s ancient, pristine boreal forests, one of the great carbon storehouses on the planet. (Read Naomi Klein’s description of the devastation involved in extracting oil crude from tar sands.)

Now add oil spills to the list.  Tim Martin of AP lists several spills at Enbridge Energy pipelines in Wisconsin in recent years.  The company paid a $1.1 million fine last year to settle charges that it violated state permits protecting wetlands and waterways.  Phil Mattera has a detailed rundown of the company’s environmental record at Dirt Diggers Digest.

Enbridge, the same company responsible for the Kalamazoo spill, is now pressing to build a pipeline through central Illinois to move tar sand crude to shipping points.  Kari Lydersen wrote about it in 2008.

It’s part of a partnership to develop a pipeline system to get Canadian crude to the Gulf.  The partners are Enbridge and BP Pipelines, Inc.

In May 2009, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved the Enbridge proposal, over the objections of local farmers.  It postponed action on a staff recommendation that Enbridge be granted the power of eminent domain.

When a federal judge ruled in favor of the company’s easement claims earlier this year, an attorney representing landowners vowed to appeal.

One observer predicts that oil spills will become more frequent as we increasingly tap hard-to-reach oil sources and transport it much greater distances.  That doesn’t sound like tar sands oil is part of the solution.

More at Tar Sands Watch.

Aldermen targeted on clean power

With next year’s elections looming, national officers of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are coming to town to announce additional organizational resources for a ward-by-ward drive to win aldermanic support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance.

They’ll join representatives from nearly 50 environmental and civic groups in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition at a media event tomorrow (Thursday, July 15) at 11 a.m. at Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton.

The park is nearby Midwest Generation’s Fisk plant, one of two coal-fired power plants in the city that would be required to install modern pollution controls under the ordinance.  The two plants are held responsible for asthma and other health problems causing scores of deaths and hundreds of emergency room visits every year.

The ward-level, citywide campaign will include a focus on Aldermen Danny Solis (25th ward) and Rick Munoz (22nd ward), who represent Pilsen and Little Village, where the Fisk and Crawford plants are located.  To date, nine aldermen have joined sponsor Ald. Joe Moore (49th) in backing the ordinance; Solis and Munoz have yet to do so.

While the company has said it is reducing harmful emissions from the plants, Becki Clayborn of the Sierra Club’s Illinois  Beyond Coal Campaign pointed out that the US EPA and Illinois Attorney General brought them to court earlier this year because they are failing to meet current standards for emissions.  The plants have been charged with thousands of violations of opacity standards.

In 2006 the state negotiated a deal allowing the plants to continue operating but requiring them to meet modern emissions standards — starting in 2015.  Because they predate the Clean Air Act of 1977, they are exempt from its toughest standards.

Commonwealth Edison recently told Crain’s Chicago Business that within the next few years, the loss of either Fisk or Crawford “would create an unacceptable degredation of reliability in downtown Chicago.”

Clayborn is skeptical.  “We think that’s just speculation,” she saqid.  “We know [Fisk and Crawford] are only operating at 30 percent capacity on average, so they’re not creating that much power.”

They are creating about 5 million tons of carbon emissions yearly – the equivalent of 875,000 automobiles, according to the coalition.

“Burning coal to generate electrictity harms human health and compounds many of the major public health problems facing the industrialized world,” according to a recent report from Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report traces detrimental health effects from every phase of the coal power business – from mining to disposal of post-combustion wastes.  Coal power production contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S. – heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory disease.

What now for nuclear waste?

With the nation’s policy on radioactive waste up in the air, experts and activists from across the country are gathering in Chicago this weekend for a National Grassroots Summit on Radioactive Waste Policy.

They’ll meet from Friday, June 4, through Sunday, June 6, at Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus, with a public forum on “A People’s History of Radioactive Waste” on Saturday afternoon, and workshops Friday afternoon and Saturday and Sunday mornings.

While cancelling a national radioactive waste storage site at Yucca Mountain earlier this year, President Obama also proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants.  In January, the Department of Energy announced a blue ribbon commission to come up with recommendations for managing nuclear waste.

The commission’s composition and agenda concerned environmental and anti-nuclear activists, said Dave Kraft of Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, one of the summit’s organizers.

“It looks like more of the same or worse ,” he said.  “We were extremely disappointed.  It looks like they’re fishing for a rationalization for reprocessing.”

Nuclear proponents have pushed reprocessing of nuclear fuel as a solution to waste problems; critics say reprocessing would increase costs, fail to solve storage issues, add to nuclear terrorism risks and undermine limits on fuel technology in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In response to concerns over the DOE commission, NEIS and other groups called the summit – with the goal of establishing a People’s Green Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Waste Future to monitor and critique the official commission.  The alternative commission will also gather public testimony and develop its own recommendations, which will be submitted to DOE.

Among those participating at this weekend’s summit will be activists from communities dealing with uranium mining, nuclear reactor decommissioning, and radioactive waste storage,  Kraft said.  One such long-term storage site is at Sheffield, Illinois, near Dixon, which was closed 30 years ago and later developed leaks, according to NEIS.

One question the summit will consider is what to do with 55,000 tons of nuclear waste already being stored temporarily at reactor sites, Kraft said.

The Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has also published “Advice for the Blue Ribbon Commission.”

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