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Frustrated by inaction at every level of government, several environmental watchdog organizations announced plans today to sue the owner of Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants for alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act.
The coal plants are among the biggest sources of dangerous air emissions in the region, but authorities have moved only haltingly to compel them to clean up.
Just a week ago several environmental groups chided Chicago officials for failing to get tough with the plants, which studies have blamed for scores of ER visits and premature deaths every year. Today the groups essentially took aim at the state and federal governments, which they contend should do more to force plant owner Midwest Generation to slash its emissions of dangerous soot.
The organizations sent a letter to the company and government regulators declaring their intention to sue within two months. They charge that in its own reports to the state Midwest Generation has repeatedly admitted it produced a higher concentration of soot than allowed. Soot, otherwise known as particulate matter, has been linked to heart disease, asthma, cancer, and other ailments.
“How do they get away with that?” asked Faith Bugel, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “Beats me. That’s why we’re outraged.”
Midwest Generation spokesman Charley Parnell says the environmental groups are blowing things out of proportion. “We have acknowledged that there have been exceedances from our operations, as there are with every coal-fired power plant in the country,” he said. “The [government] agencies have always allowed for those exceedances because it’s impossible to run a coal plant without them.”
The Clean Air Act is a federal law that’s implemented by environmental officials in the states. Companies that pollute have to get permits that detail what’s allowed and, if necessary, lay out plans for reducing emissions to legal levels.
Under the act a 60-day waiting period follows any announcement of a potential lawsuit, giving the parties involved a chance to negotiate. In this case, Bugel explained, it essentially puts the ball in the court of the federal government, which the environmentalists are trying to prod into action.
It’s not the first time. In 2003 several groups began a legal fight with the U.S. EPA over whether it was allowing the state of Illinois to let the plants operate under permits that violated the Clean Air Act. But last year a federal appeals court ruled against them [PDF], saying that the EPA had the “discretion” to allow the plants more leeway than the environmental groups maintained.
Parnell says the environmentalists simply want to shut down every coal-fired plant in Illinois, even though they account for about half of the state’s energy. “How do we produce the difference without these plants?” he says.
Environmental groups say coal-fired plants are such serious health risks—and such significant contributors to climate change--that we can no longer allow them to operate as they once did.
“At the city, state, and federal level here, all of these governments have been okay with these plants that use 50, 60-year-old technology and are located in densely populated, minority neighborhoods," Bugel says. "No one in government has stood up to say it’s not acceptable that they’re violating the terms of their permits.”