Fisk Generating Station, 1111 W. Cermak
Fisk Generating Station, 1111 W. Cermak Credit: Chris Diers

When the Fisk, Crawford, and State Line coal-fired power plants were built roughly a century ago, they were gleaming symbols of progress and modernization. Fisk made history when it opened in Pilsen in 1903: its five-megawatt vertical steam-driven turbine was the largest of its kind. Crawford went online in 1924, and in 1929 State Line opened on a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan Lake Calumet just over the Indiana border; one of its generating units was then the largest in the world. The three plants powered the striving metropolis, from its industry to its homes to the South Shore electric railroad that still runs right by the State Line plant.

Now the plants are relics, smaller and dirtier than modern coal plants. And Chicago gets its power from a grid that also draws electricity from other, larger coal-burning plants, nuclear plants, and wind farms in the region.

Under the 1977 Clean Air Act, the coal-fired plants were exempted from meeting the same requirements as new facilities because it was assumed they would soon close down anyway. But that day has yet to come, and a national report released by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force in September says air pollution from the three is likely responsible for 66 premature deaths, 104 heart attacks, more than a thousand asthma attacks, and dozens of cases of chronic bronchitis in the Chicago area each year.

In 1999 ComEd sold Fisk and Crawford to the parent company of current owner Midwest Generation, and in 2002 Virginia-based Dominion Resources bought State Line. Since then, says Henry Henderson, midwest program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)and former Chicago environment commissioner, unexpected regulatory and market developments mean they’ve gone from lucrative investments that could have generated enough revenue for modernization to outdated, marginally profitable “zombie facilities.”

Protest near Fisk, October 10
Protest near Fisk, October 10Credit: Lloyd Degrane

“Midwest Generation paid so much for an antiquated fleet, and then the economics changed drastically,” he says. “Now they’re trying to squeeze out a modicum of return on a bad investment, and the return is being subsidized by people’s health, by asthma attacks and premature death.”

For the past decade Pilsen and Little Village residents and grassroots environmental-justice groups have been fighting to force Fisk and Crawford to either drastically reduce harmful emissions or simply shut down. They’ve tried protests, ballot initiatives, and even street theater to no avail. In 2002, alderman Ed Burke introduced an ordinance (PDF) that would have forced them to slash emissions or shut down; it died in committee.

Last summer Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan and the federal government sued Midwest Generation, alleging violations of the Clean Air Act at Fisk and Crawford. But the lawsuit is slowly making its way through the court system—the next hearing is scheduled for February 2011, according to Midwest Generation. The State Line plant, just across the Indiana border, until recently had long escaped the same scrutiny as Fisk and Crawford.

Credit: Lloyd Degrane

Now a confluence of factors suggests that these coal plants’ days could finally be numbered. But they’ve weathered challenges before. What would it really take for them to shut down? And what would happen if they did?

In April Rogers Park alderman Joe Moore introduced a new ordinance that would essentially force Fisk and Crawford to meet current cleanup goals a lot earlier, convert to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shut down. Midwest Generation spokesman Charley Parnell called it a “shut-down ordinance” and said the gas conversion was financially infeasible.

Ed Burke, sponsor of the previous ordinance, is one of the city’s most powerful alderman—the guy who pushed through the city’s smoking ban despite vociferous opposition from powerful restaurant and bar interests, not to mention the mayor. What makes Moore, whose failed causes include the foie gras ban and the big-box living wage ordinance, think he can succeed where Burke couldn’t?

Well, if you ask Moore, it’s the current climate, literally and figuratively, that gives his law a better chance. Burke’s proposal demanded the plants reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—harmful compounds that react in the atmosphere to form acid rain, ozone, and particulate matter. The debate was framed as a local public health issue, in which nearby residents suffer disproportionately.

Credit: Lloyd Degrane

Moore’s ordinance takes a wider view, targeting the five million tons of carbon dioxide the plants emit each year. Carbon dioxide has no place-specific health or environmental effects, but it’s the primary driver of climate change. Moore’s ordinance, unlike Burke’s, also deals with what’s known as direct particulate matter, the fine particles emitted directly from the smokestacks. In June the U.S. EPA released a study finding that long-term exposure to particulate matter causes cardiovascular disease and is likely to cause cancer; even short-term exposure is likely to have cardiovascular and respiratory effects. “Now there’s more public awareness of the harmful effects of these coal-fired plants, the political climate is much more open to having this ordinance passed,” says Moore. “And people’s awareness of the hostile impact of global warming has increased tenfold since 2002.”

Moore became interested in the coal issue after touring West Virginia mountaintop removal strip mines with the group Eco-Justice Collaborative. In August he visited strip mines in Wyoming from which Fisk, Crawford, and State Line get their coal. “These are all pieces in the puzzle,” said Moore, who was in Wyoming for a meeting of the National League of Cities’ energy, environment, and natural resources steering committee. “I saw the devastation that results from coal being extracted, and I have seen the end result.”

Moore’s ordinance is currently backed by 14 aldermen. It needs at least 26 votes to pass, and if City Council history is any indication, two of those votes would need to be from the aldermen in whose wards the power plants live. Moore won a significant ally in August, when Little Village alderman Ricardo Munoz backed the ordinance. But Pilsen alderman Danny Solis hasn’t supported it, saying coal-plant regulation is a matter for the state and federal governments. “The City of Chicago would face a legal challenge if it regulates carbon because of the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that gave the federal EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases,” he said through spokesman Steve Stults. “This could result in costly lawsuits, costing taxpayers.” But he also hasn’t said outright he would vote against it. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition—a group of individuals and 49 local and national organizations, churches, and companies—is now surveying all 50 aldermen, asking them to clarify their position on the ordinance.

A Chicago ordinance wouldn’t affect the State Line plant, of course. Local and state regulators in Indiana have shown little interest in addressing its emissions, which are roughly equivalent to Fisk and Crawford’s combined. But on September 9, major environmental and health groups including the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago (RHAMC), the NRDC, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center gave notice of their intent to sue Dominion over opacity violations at State Line. (Opacity is a measure of the blackness of smoke coming out of the plant’s stacks, and reflects the amount of particulate matter, or soot, contained in it.) Dominion’s own records show that the plant has repeatedly exceeded legal opacity limits.

The activists hope their notice of intent will spur the federal government to file its own lawsuit against the company. That’s what happened last summer, when a notice of intent by the same groups was followed in short order by the suit against Midwest Generation.

If that happens, State Line may simply shut down, says Dominion spokesman Dan Genest. “Dominion does not believe it would make economic sense to make the investment in the equipment we expect will likely be needed to meet the EPA’s new sulfur dioxide standard,” he says. “We will continue to run State Line safely and in compliance with all applicable rules, regulations, and laws as long as it makes economic sense to do so.”

This year Midwest Generation will close down two of four generating units at its Romeoville plant to meet emissions limits in a 2006 agreement with the Illinois EPA. But spokesman Doug McFarlan took issue with a September 18 story in Crain’s that suggested the company could be facing bankruptcy by 2013.

“We recognize that there is uncertainty about the long-term future for much of the country’s coal fleet,” he says. But “earlier this year, we disclosed that we were preparing for construction projects estimated to cost $160 million to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions across our fleet, including in Chicago, by 2012. Preliminary construction work is already under way.

“After that, our state agreement—and pending new federal regulations—require additional reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions between 2013 and 2018. The dates required for equipment installations in the city are end of 2015 at Fisk and end of 2017 and ’18 on the two generating units at Crawford. These are long lead-time construction projects that require much advance design and engineering work, so ultimate decisions about whether we will do this work or retire the units isn’t immediate. . . . We will make decisions when required based on an assessment of the current market, which includes power prices, cost of retrofits, assessment of the competitive market, etc. We have set no firm deadline for ourselves in deciding on Fisk and Crawford.”

Mayor Daley’s September 7 announcement that he won’t run for reelection could also boost the ordinance’s chances.

Coal-fired power plants are considered the largest “point source” culprit in climate change worldwide (“non-point-source” emissions come from cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships). Fisk and Crawford are Chicago’s largest stationary sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, at 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. (For comparison, in 2000 the transportation sector produced 7.3 million metric tons, about 21 percent of Chicago’s greenhouse-gas emissions.) Protests were held around the coal plants in the days leading up to the climate conference in Copenhagen last December; Fisk and Crawford were also targeted as part of a global action day on October 10.

Mayor Daley, deservedly or not, has a worldwide reputation as a “green” mayor and gained positive attention for the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan, which committed to significant reductions in the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In July he presided over the unveiling of the nation’s largest urban solar farm, in West Pullman. Under his watch Chicago has become a hub for the corporate headquarters of global and regional wind energy-related companies, and the city is gearing up to develop and support a fleet of alternative-fuel and hybrid cars.

But environmentalists say that as he steps down he could secure his legacy by backing Moore’s ordinance and calling for the plants to convert to natural gas or shut down.

“Mayor Daley’s known as the greenest mayor in the country and yet we have these two major sources of air pollution, not only hurting and killing people right now, but also the two largest sources of carbon dioxide in the city and contributing to the ticking time bomb that is climate change,” said Brian Urbaszewski, RHAMC director of environmental programs. “He can leave a huge mark, a huge legacy for not only this generation but future generations in supporting an ordinance that leads to the cleanup of these plants.”

Joe Moore says Department of Environment officials (who had not responded to requests for comment at press time) have unofficially made it known that they believe the coal plants are a matter for state and federal regulation. By extension, he says, this can be assumed to be Daley’s position. But when Daley’s gone, “there will be less obligation to toe the mayor’s line on this,” Moore says. “My sense is people already feel they are operating a little less under the yoke of the mayor.”

For the past decade a small but dedicated group of residents has been demanding changes at Fisk and Crawford. In 2003 the Pilsen Green Party put nonbinding initiatives on the ballot in several precincts, where an overwhelming majority of voters agreed that Ed Burke’s emissions-reducing ordinance should pass. Some of the more outre actions by groups PERRO (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization) and LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization) have included Day of the Dead marches in gas masks, a “Coalympics” during the city’s Olympics bid, and a “die-in” where Little Village youth lay in body bags at City Hall.

But often organizers have felt like they were screaming into the void. Plenty of Pilsen and Little Village residents still don’t know that those iconic smokestacks are attached to coal-burning plants. And when more established groups would address the coal plants, including in negotiations around the 2006 emissions-reduction agreement between power companies and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, PERRO and LVEJO were not invited to the table.

But recently the nation’s largest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and the NRDC, have adopted the Chicago coal plants as symbols in their nationwide anti-coal campaigns.

These national campaigns highlight the wide-ranging negative effects of coal, from the environmental and social impact of mining to the health and climate effects of burning coal to the dangers toxic coal ash waste poses to the water supply. The big environmental groups have sent staffers to Chicago for organizing and protests, including during the September 16 U.S. EPA hearings on coal ash. As hundreds of citizens testified in hearings on coal ash, the Sierra Club used a mobile solar generating station to erect a huge inflatable coal-fired power plant in Grant Park, and activists reenacted the 2008 disaster wherein a coal-ash retaining pond flooded the town of Kingston, Tennessee. Local activists say they’ve had a good working relationship with the major groups on recent actions.

State Line Generating Plant, viewed from Chicago
State Line Generating Plant, viewed from ChicagoCredit: Lloyd Degrane

The Sierra Club, NRDC, and other heavy hitters are targeting old, dirty coal plants in urban areas nationwide. “We are gearing up to run a 30-state program to shutter old coal plants and replace them with clean energy, like wind and solar,” says Bruce Nilles, national director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program. “That work is most pronounced in the midwest, where we have multiple lawsuits pending against old coal plants in states such as Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with many more coming next year. Many of these plants are in urban areas, including Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit.” National clean-power advocates say Chicago could be a role model to show other cities how they can take the initiative in shutting down plants when federal and state regulators are slow to act.

“Regionally we need to pull coal out of the energy mix, and starting with the plants in the most densely populated areas is a no-brainer,” says Nilles. He calls the proposed ordinance a “landmark effort, demonstrating to cities around the country that (local legislation) is a tremendous way to address the problem.”

Twenty PERRO members and supporters kept a 24-hour vigil outside Solis’s office on September 27, and PERRO leaders say Solis’s daughter and staffer Maya Solis promised to set up a meeting with the group—but it still hasn’t happened and “we’ve been hearing that since April,” says teacher and PERRO leader Jerry Mead-Lucero.

Solis’s office sponsored a bike ride through the ward on October 3, and activists from PERRO and Rainforest Action Network joined in with banners pushing the clean-power ordinance. During a day of global protest on climate change last weekend, the Clean Power Coalition held a rally at the Alivio Medical Center, near the Fisk plant, and dropped a banner along the marathon route from the windows of a building on Cermak Avenue just west of Halsted. On November 1 PERRO is planning another Day of the Dead march.

Whatever happens, the political process that determines the coal plants’ future probably won’t be clean or efficient. Solis and Midwest Generation say the city doesn’t have the authority to tell the coal plants what to do. Moore contends it does, under Illinois’s home rule provision, as does Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “The city of Chicago under its home rule authority to protect public health, safety, and welfare, can regulate highly polluting coal plants that are harming the health of people in the communities,” he says. But if the ordinance does pass, it’s likely Midwest Generation will sue: “I have no doubt that Midwest Generation will challenge it—it’s a free country and they can do that,” says Learner. “I don’t think their legal theories are frivolous. The courts make decisions all the time, and the home rule authority of Chicago and other such municipalities is broad and has long been upheld by the courts to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.”

Midwest Generation spokesman Doug McFarlan notes that the U.S. EPA is gearing up to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning plants and considering new regulations on particulate matter. If or when Congress passes an energy or climate bill that puts a price on carbon, that would also affect the plants—and a steep enough price could make shutdowns the more appealing option. But Congress has so far failed to pass a tough climate bill, and an industry-friendly bill would likely allow old coal plants to continue operating, with some extra costs while making it politically difficult or even impossible for state or local law to address carbon. Solis spokesman Steve Stults said the alderman believes it is “very questionable” whether the city has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide, and the city could face lawsuits, “costing taxpayers,” if it tries.

Midwest Generation has invested about $60 million in pollution control upgrades at Fisk and Crawford since purchasing the plants from ComEd in 1999. The 2006 agreement between the Illinois EPA and three power companies—Midwest Generation, Ameren, and Dynegy—means they must reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxide by certain deadlines. The Fisk and Crawford plants have already installed mercury controls to meet state requirements that are among the strictest in the nation, and McFarlan said they’re on track to install nitrogen oxide controls by 2012. Scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide must be installed at Fisk by 2015 and Crawford’s two units in 2017 and 2018.

In the past company officials have said the plants might close before then if installing scrubbers proves too expensive, but McFarlan said the company is currently planning to proceed. Midwest Generation has no plans to take measures to reduce direct particulate matter, though McFarlan notes that the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide controls also reduce particulates.

“You’ve got transportation, other industrial uses, planes, trains, automobiles, a lot of sources of particulate emissions that make Fisk and Crawford look like a very small percentage of the total,” McFarlan says. In 2008 in Cook County, mobile sources were responsible for 74 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions; the largest source of particulate matter was road construction.”

“We’re also working to get refineries, cement plants, landfills, and diesel engines in CTA buses, construction equipment, trucks, and locomotives in the Chicago area cleaned up,” says RHAMC’s Brian Urbaszewski. “All of these are also causing breathing problems, but that doesn’t mean we can or morally should ignore pollution sources that have been sickening and killing people for years.”

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t do what is reasonable to continue to reduce emissions from all sources,” says McFarlan. “That’s what we’re doing and we’re continuing to do it.”

Pollution control isn’t the only place Midwest Generation and its parent company, Edison International, have invested. They’ve donated generously to Chicago politicians and political parties and local organizations over the past decade—including about $52,400 to Solis’s ward organization. .

According to the state Board of Elections, Munoz’s campaign fund got about $26,000 from Midwest Generation and Edison International. Blagojevich’s received about $157,000, Burke’s about $16,000, and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s about $45,000.

“I understand how it could seem like $50,000 is a lot of money,” wrote Solis spokesman Stults in an e-mail. “But spread out over the 10 years that Midwest Generation has been making contributions to the neighborhood, it is an average donation for a company of that size.”

“We consider our political contribution activity part of our overall involvement in the community and our corporate citizenship in the community,” says McFarlan. “I think people need to be careful with making blanket statements about the ethics and integrity of individual public officials. You go through a list of all officeholders, you’re going to find the vast majority are receiving contributions from corporations, individuals, special interest groups, and entities on opposite sides of an issue. That is part of the political process in this country.”

McFarlan notes that Midwest Generation staff also serve on the boards of several Pilsen and Little Village nonprofit organizations, and that the company donates to local causes. It gave $250,000 to Benito Juarez Community Academy in 2003 for a performing arts center and two grants of $50,000 to Walsh Elementary School to enhance the math and science curriculums; both schools are within blocks of the Fisk plant. It also regularly sponsors the annual Fiesta del Sol street fair in Pilsen to the tune of $15,000-$20,000 a year (mostly in scholarships connected with the fiesta, according to McFarlan). PERRO members say they’ve had trouble gaining support from other Pilsen nonprofit groups, and they think it’s because Midwest Generation donates to so many of them.

“With all the donations and supporting Fiesta del Sol, the high school, and all these community groups, Midwest Generation has made itself almost indispensable to Solis,” said PERRO’s Jerry Mead-Lucero. “It’s going to take a lot of ‘people power’ to overcome that.”

What would actually happen if the three coal plants closed? Fisk, Crawford, and State Line contribute to the energy load that Midwest Generation and Dominion sell to ComEd to power the Chicago area; but the plants closing down would pose no risk of an electricity shortage in the region, according to ComEd spokesman Bennie Currie; Illinois is a net exporter of power. McFarlan was more circumspect, saying it depends on how many other plants in the region might close in the next several years. “Reserve margins are adequate today, but clearly at risk as companies evaluate investments they will be able to make under environmental regulations,” he e-mailed, “and as demand can be expected to pick up as the economy recovers.”

Both say the Chicago power plants are needed to maintain a stable flow of electricity through city power lines, and that if they were to be abruptly closed, disruptions in the power supply could occur. ComEd is seeking approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission for a $178 million upgrade of city electric infrastructure that would eliminate this obstacle; it would be funded by rate increases of about 20 cents per month for residential customers, according to ComEd. Bennie Currie says the utility planned the upgrade long before Moore introduced his ordinance with the understanding that Fisk and Crawford would eventually shut down for one reason or another. He couldn’t confirm by press time how long the improvements might take to complete once funded.

“If for whatever reason the Fisk and Crawford facilities were to cease operating prior to completion of the proposed improvements,” says Currie, “our service to the Chicago central business district would be at risk for failures. . . . The upgrades we’ve proposed for our transmission system would ensure reliability during peak demand periods, strengthen the electric system and reduce the impact to this critical area of our service territory in the event of significant equipment failures or loss of generation. How retirement of State Line would impact our system requires further study.”

Company officials and Solis have frequently invoked job loss as another reason not to shut down the plants. Fisk and Crawford employ about 200 people in union jobs; Midwest Generation’s McFarlan couldn’t say exactly how many were neighboring or even city residents, but said the number of workers from the immediate neighborhood is fairly small and that many come from outside the city.

Were the plants to close, the air would be notably cleaner, especially near the sites. Residents might see a significant reduction in the black soot that now collects on windowsills and household objects in Pilsen and Little Village; Little Village residents would no longer contend with coal dust blowing directly off the large piles of coal surrounding the Crawford plant. According to the Clean Air Task Force, incidence of disease and asthma attacks in the area would be significantly reduced.

Coal barges would no longer ply the Sanitary and Ship Canal or the south branch of the Chicago River to supply Fisk and Crawford, which could play into the ongoing debate over whether to separate the Chicago waterway system from Lake Michigan to prevent the invasion of Asian carp.

Environmentalists envision the sites transformed into solar farms, like the one in West Pullman, or factories making wind turbine components or other “green” industry. In neighborhoods with among the city’s least green space, residents would also like to see parks. The coal plant sites aren’t necessarily any better suited for green industry than multiple other brownfields throughout the metropolitan area, but environmental leaders say the transformation would have symbolic value.

“In their day these plants were responsible for moving Chicago into the modern world,” says the NRDC’s Henry Henderson. “But are we still stuck there, isn’t there another step? Now they’re a burden on the emerging new energy economy, they’re stifling a vital new future. They’re part of our legacy and inheritance, but it’s time to move on.”