Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The City Council’s energy and environment committee approved legislation Tuesday designed to make Chicago’s air cleaner and safer through stricter regulation of asbestos, diesel emissions from vehicles, and certain industrial polluters. City officials said the legislation was a key step in making the city greener. But it was just as notable for what it didn't include: any mention of the two coal-fired power plants that are the city's leading sources of dangerous air emissions.
“Why aren’t the coal plants in here?” committee chair Virginia Rugai asked near the beginning of a two-hour discussion.
It was a question quite a few people in the room had, and Rugai posed it in an apparent attempt to let environment commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna head off criticism that the Daley administration was once more passing up a chance to take action against the plants, which the Reader has been reporting on for years.
The gambit didn’t work.
Malec-McKenna tried—she said that city environmental officials have limited authority to impose standards beyond what's set by the federal and state governments. And she noted that under Rod Blagojevich the state had already set rules for the power plants that require them to clean up or shut down by 2015 (for the Fisk Generating Station, in Pilsen) and 2018 (for the Crawford Generating Station, in Little Village).
“We cannot put forth different regulations than what the state has put in place,” she said. “So it is not our role to regulate them on a regular basis.”
Malec-McKenna is generally a pretty straight shooter, but she wasn’t terribly convincing to several aldermen and environmental advocates who were at the meeting—in part because her explanation isn’t the only one the administration has offered for its inaction over the years.
Back in 2002 officials said Midwest Generation, the company that owns the plants, couldn’t afford to upgrade to clean technology; they argued that if tougher standards were imposed the facilities would close and their 200 workers would lose their jobs. Later they said they were trying to hash out a compromise with the company. Then, after voters in precincts near the plants endorsed a referendum calling on them to clean up, the administration began arguing that it lacked the authority—a conclusion questioned by other environmental law experts, who say the city could at least explore other legal and economic options to apply pressure.
Among those who couldn’t quite accept Malec-McKenna’s line of reasoning was Alderman Joe Moore, who’s been on a fierce independent streak since disavowing his vote for the parking meter deal.
“Coal-fired plants are the single-biggest contributor to global warming, are they not?” he asked her.
“I’m not sure if that’s exactly right,” she said.
It is, but Moore didn’t belabor the point. “Well, it’s a large one,” he said. “And I do think there is a glaring omission here…. You have these two plants in our city that more than anything else contribute to global warming and impede the efforts of this city to achieve the results of its climate action plan. So I have been disappointed and I continue to be disappointed and somewhat perplexed by the administration’s failure to really aggressively pursue shutting down these plants.”
Malec-McKenna responded with a new argument: these plants may be dirty and dangerous to the public health, but they’re not the only ones. “If you look, not just in Chicago but in the Chicago region, the state, the U.S., worldwide, coal is a big energy source. But the broader issue is not necessarily these two plants but how do we replace coal with what energy sources. Right now coal and nuclear still have a very large quantity of our energy provisions. To focus on our two plants out of the network of coal plants in the state of Illinois isn’t necessarily, in my opinion, contextual, in terms of what’s going on, and knowing air quality doesn’t necessarily stop at our borders—”
“Sure,” Moore said, “but we in the City Council, you as a representative of the mayor, we can’t control what goes on in the rest of the country or in the rest of the world, but we can certainly lead by example, and we can certainly take steps to address the two plants that are within our corporate borders and over which I believe we have some legal authority and legal standing.”
Malec-McKenna didn’t back down; she returned to the lost-jobs argument. The state’s approach “gives any business that’s employing hundreds of people in the Chicago area time to determine what’s going to make the most sense economically for that business,” she said. “The reality is that this kind of thing takes time.”
Moore realized he wasn't going to win this one, so he prodded and kvetched a little more before letting go. But a bit later he got some backup from several environmental experts, including Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. While saying he supported the legislation package because it was an improvement over what was already on the books, Urbaszewski chastised the city for making excuses about the power plants.
“It’s really not an option to wait until 2015,” he said. “People continue to get sick and die from that pollution.”