Chicago: First US city to regulate coal plant air pollution?

A Chicago alderman has forwarded a proposal for the city to regulate coal plant emissions. It is part of an ongoing effort to address serious air pollution problems in the city.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File
This April 12, 2007, file photo shows the Crawford Generating Station, a coal-fired power station in Chicago. This month, several Chicago aldermen called for a new ordinance to regulate coal plant emissions in an effort to reduce air pollution.

A group of Chicago alderman are proposing to make Chicago the first US city to regulate coal plant emissions.

The group, led by Alderman Joe Moore, wants to crack down on two coal-producing plants that operate within the city limits. The plants contribute to Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation rating among metropolitan areas for a certain type of air pollution produced by cars, factories, and coal-fired power plants.

US Environmental Protection Agency measurements of nitrogen oxides, a key ingredient in smog, showed that Chicago averaged 116 parts per billion, measured every hour, from 2006 to 2008. That was the highest of any major US city, with San Diego coming second at 87 parts per billion.

In fact, Chicago would be the only city to fail a new standard for nitrogen-oxide regulation proposed by the EPA in January. Its threshold would be 100 parts per billion.

Chicago's clean-air problem

Chicago’s nitrogen-oxide levels are elevated in part because of where the monitoring system is located, says Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. It sits at the intersection of two major interstates, guaranteeing dense automobile traffic no matter the time of day, he adds.

But it also sits downwind from Chicago’s two coal plants, and Moore is trying to focus attention on those plants.

“There’s more people in close proximity to these plants than anywhere else in the country,” says Mr. Urbaszewski.

Moore’s ordinance would give the owner of the two plants, Midwest Generation, a timeline to modernize pollution controls and to limit emissions.

But Douglas McFarlan, a spokesperson for the company, told the Associated Press last week that the proposed ordinance is “unnecessary and misguided” and could lead to plant closures. He accused supporters of the ordinance of using “scare tactics.”

Phone calls to Midwest Generation were not returned Monday.

Plants' controversial past

The plants have been the focus of controversy for some time.

A 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that the plants contribute to an annual extra risk of 40 premature deaths.

In August 2009, the state of Illinois and the US Justice Department jointly filed a civil lawsuit against the company, alleging that it continually violated the Clean Air Act. The complaint said the company made modifications to its plants without installing the required pollution controls.

Last month, a federal judge sided with the company and dismissed nine of the 38 counts in the complaint.

For its part, the company has insisted it has made upgrades since purchasing both plants in 1991.

Moore says his plan would stand up to legal challenges because the city has “broad home rule authority” in public-health matters.

But he does not yet have the crucial support of Mayor Richard Daley, who has not commented on the proposal. But Moore says he is optimistic, considering that Mr. Daley pledged in 2008 to reduce Chicago’s greenhouse gas emissions considerably by 2020.

“I would hope that if he is serious to achieve the goal of a climate action plan ... that he would embrace this ordinance,” Moore says.

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