A couple of weeks ago local environmental groups announced their intent to sue the owners of six heavy-polluting coal-fired power plants in Illinois for polluting more than what they're allowed under federal law. If, as they hope, they can pressure the federal government to take action, they may want to turn to Shadyside, Ohio, for a possible solution that could get the plants cleaned up without forcing them to shut down.
A few days ago the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Ohio Edison reached an historic agreement to switch the energy-producing fuel at the Shadyside plant from coal alone to a mix of coal and "biomass"—otherwise known as "natural wood from waste tree trimmings and dedicated sustainable nurseries, agricultural crops, grasses and vegetation waste or products," according to the EPA.
Not only will this reduce emissions of soot and chemicals that contribute to heart disease, cancer, and other ailments, it will move closer to what's called carbon neutrality. That's when the carbon dioxide sucked up by growing the wood, grass, and plants used as fuel offsets the CO2 produced by burning it to produce power. The plant's annual emissions of CO2, the primary culprit in global warming, will be slashed by more than 75 percent, from 1.7 million tons to 400,000 tons.
For the sake of context: the Crawford plant in Little Village produced more than three million tons in 2008, and the Fisk plant in Pilsen anothertwo million tons, according to the EPA. Every year the facilities also emit thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, a harmful gas that forms acid rain, and nitrogen oxides, which can yield deadly smog and soot.
The defense from Midwest Generation, the company that owns the Chicago plants, goes like this: Yes, but we're reducing our emissions every year (even if they're still at dangerous levels). If you impose restrictions on us, we'll have to close down and dozens of people will lose their jobs. And electrical power will cost more because less of it will be selling on the open market.
The deal struck in Ohio provides a response to those arguments. Converting the old Chicago facilities into a modern, clean fuel plant would undoubtedly cost money upfront—but so do all of these lawsuits and medical bills. And the long-term price tag of climate change is already shooting up.