Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=93137
Story Retrieval Date: 10/25/2014 4:11:30 PM CST
Smoke from coal plants causes many problems, from soot triggering asthma attacks to odors offending.
Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste, although scientists caution that the chances of radiation-based health effects from living near either type of plant are one in 10 million to 100 million for coal plants and one in a billion for nuclear plants.
Three pollutants are considered the most troublesome, though. They are mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The shorthand – used by a number of people interviewed separately for stories about coal plant pollution – is “mercury, sox and nox.”
“At some level, these things are absolutely no problem. At some other level they can pose a minor problem and at another level it’s highly toxic,” said Dr. Alan Leff, a professor of medicine and pulmonologist at the University of Chicago.
Coal is mostly carbon and hydrocarbons, but contains other chemicals. These are released into the air when the coal burns.
When sulfur dioxide combines with water it creates sulfurous acid, a major component in acid rain. There has been much medical debate on whether inhaling sulfur dioxide directly can contribute to or worsen emphysema, but there is no consensus yet, Leff said.
Nitrogen dioxide – one of the two nitrogen oxides released by the burning – is a major threat to the lungs, Leff said.
“When you inhale it, it mixes with the water in your lung and becomes nitric acid,” he said.
Mercury, which attacks the nervous system, can also be inhaled. Another danger comes when the particles settle in water. Bacteria convert the mercury to its most toxic form, methylmercury. Small fish eat the bacteria. Big fish eat the small fish. People eat the big fish.
“It’s a heavy metal. It’s an element, so it doesn’t get metabolized, destroyed or whatever. Once it’s there, it’s there in some form,” Leff said.
Leff said cases of mercury toxicity from fish are the only cases he’s aware of where the cause wasn’t directly industrial.
But nox, sox and mercury aren’t as big an issue to Leff as the soot itself, heavy particles of all sorts of chemicals.
“My view is, more of a concern than all other three things combined are the particulates. They’re carriers of everything,” Leff said.
Particulates, which come not only from coal plants but also from cars, factories and other sources, aggravate the lungs, causing asthma attacks and possibly emphysema, he said.
Urban life, Leff said, has been linked to “lung diseases we used to see not at all or only among cigarette smokers.”
Walking by grassy Dvorak Park with his two daughters in tow, former Pilsen resident Rudy Lucas looked across the street to a sight once familiar to him – the Fisk coal-fired power plant.
“It smelled like dead- like sewers that had been backed up for so long. That’s actually one of the reasons we left,” said Lucas, 35, who now lives in suburban Plainfield.
Aside from the smell, the Fisk plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulates into the low-income, heavily Hispanic neighborhoods that surround them. As those emissions come through smokestacks, toxins and soot float throughout the region, possibly causing deaths and asthma attacks as far away as Green Bay and Detroit, according to one study.
The burning of coal also provides more than half of Illinois’ power and about half of the nation’s. There’s a good chance the light you’re reading this article by was generated by coal.
Citing alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, local environmental groups and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office have since 2003 been challenging operating permits the Environmental Protection Agency granted to Fisk, Crawford and other plants also run by the company Midwest Generation. The groups wanted the EPA to accept evidence from the Illinois Commerce Commission and other groups alleging the plants had been violating federal law.
“The bottom line is it was the [EPA’s] responsibility when there’s that much information out there that’s a smoking gun,” said Ann Alexander, the former environmental counsel for the attorney general’s office.
Last September, administrative options exhausted, the groups sued the EPA over the operating permits. The case was argued in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on May 29, but it could be some time before any decision is reached.
“We don’t typically speculate about an ongoing case other than to say that we think we have been and continue operating within the legal limits,” said Midwest Generation spokesman Charlie Parnell.
Madigan’s office and the environmental groups alleged the plants’ emissions often violated air standards and that the company revamped the plants’ equipment – an act that should have triggered higher Clean Air Act standards.
While fighting the groups’ challenge to the permits, the EPA issued a notice of violation against Midwest Generation. The notice alleged that the plants’ emissions often violated air standards and that the plants revamped their equipment.
“That notice of violation that came out at the end of July , it came out of nowhere. No one expected it. It just dropped,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, one of the groups suing the EPA.
But the groups’ challenge to the permit is a different matter than the notice of violation, even though they both involve the same allegations. The notice is the EPA saying the plants were in violation. The lawsuit is the groups saying the EPA hadn’t been doing its job.
EPA Air Enforcement Branch Chief George Czerniak said the agency wanted to wait until it felt it could win in court. Documents Midwest Generation executives had signed would be the most damning, Czerniak said.
“I know we’ve interacted with [the attorney general’s office and the environmental groups] for a number of years, but typically we don’t act on information unless we feel we can prevail if it goes before a judge,” he said.
Both the EPA and Midwest Generation confirmed that they are in discussions regarding the alleged violations, but declined to give details. Urbaszewski said he worries the discussions will result in a settlement rather than a punishment.
“Unseemly as it sounds, that’s usually the way it’s done,” he said.
Thanks to a separate deal with Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2006, all Midwest Generation plants in the state have until the next decade to install a series of pollution controls or to shut down. Some of these controls have been standard or required for coal plants built since the 1970s. Fisk and Crawford never had to have these controls before because they were built before the Clean Air Act.
In return, Midwest Generation, the last of three major power companies to cut deals with the state, received more time to meet Blagojevich’s call for a 90 percent reduction in mercury by 2009. The Bush administration wanted a 70 percent reduction by 2018.
Midwest Generation’s six Illinois power plants emitted 1,824 pounds of mercury in 2003, according to a 2005 Illinois Public Interest Research Group report. That comes to 44 percent of all mercury released in Illinois that year.
The state deal gives Midwest Generation until the end of 2015 to put up the last new pollution control at Fisk and until the end of 2018 to put the last one up at Crawford. Local residents and activists are concerned about how much damage the plants could do until that time.
“This agreement overall probably in today’s dollars will cost about 3 ½ billion dollars,” Parnell said. “We have yet to recover the $4.8 billion we paid to buy these plants. This is a long-term investment.”
However, Parnell said it might turn out that closing the plants makes the most business sense.
“The market will really drive those decisions,” Parnell said.
The business of power
It’s no secret that coal pollutes, just as garbage dumps smell and airports are noisy. This is why clean air rules exist and why Rudy Lucas moved out of Pilsen.
The pollution has always been a trade-off for the electricity produced. Different people just want a different balance.
The Fisk and Crawford plants – just two of the six Illinois plants Midwest Generation owns – together can produce enough electricity to power 1,019,000 homes.
Fisk and Crawford, by the way, are old plants. Crawford, on Pulaski Road in Little Village, started generating power in 1924. The two units still in use date from 1958 and 1961. Fisk, on Cermak Road in Pilsen, is even older. It started in 1903. The unit still in use was built in 1959.
Because the units were operating when the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, they are held to lighter pollution standards than a new plant would be. This is called “grandfathering.”
In June 1999, California-based Edison International formed Midwest Generation for the sole purpose of buying and running several grandfathered plants in Illinois and one in Pennsylvania, according to a corporate press release from that year. In December 1999, the deal went through. Midwest Generation bought the plants from Commonwealth Edison (no affiliation with Edison International) for $4.8 billion.
In business terms, Commonwealth Edison is a utility. Individuals and businesses get their electricity from the company, sending off the monthly check made out to ComEd. Midwest Generation is not a utility. It doesn’t sell the electricity to consumers. It sells the electricity to utilities, which then sell it to consumers.
Midwest Generation sells the power on the open market, so the biggest bidder gets the juice. There is a chance the plants’ electricity is powering the homes near its smokestacks, but only a chance.
Since Midwest Generation bought the plants in 1999, nitrogen oxide emissions at Fisk and Crawford have been cut by 60 percent, Parnell said. Sulfur dioxide emissions have been reduced by 30 percent.
“Every year our emissions are coming down and every year the air is cleaner in Chicago and throughout the region as a result of that,” Parnell said.
However, Dorian Breuer of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization said a company should not be praised for doing what the law requires. Even grandfathered plants must reduce their emissions year by year.
“[Emissions] went down because the company was able to reduce its NO2 emissions at a slightly faster rate than the federal schedule required,” Breuer said.
“It sounds great for a press release, but when you compare it to the rate they would have to reduce by if they were a new plant or if they were using the best available equipment, you’re talking about a fraction of a percent of reduction in emissions compared to doing the best possible practices.”
The EPA notice, or, the EPA notices
The notice of violation the EPA issued last year covered all six Midwest Generation plants in Illinois, including Fisk and Crawford. It was also filled against the plants’ previous owner, Commonwealth Edison.
The EPA was saying violations had been going on for years, even before Midwest Generation bought the plants.
Findings in an EPA notice of violation are preliminary, EPA spokesman Bill Omohundro said. The agency could issue a compliance order, put out an administrative penalty or bring suit against the company.
“All I can tell you about this is that we’re in discussions with the company to resolve the allegations and that’s about it,” Omohundro said.
The EPA cited the plants for violations in two categories – opacity violations and new source violations. Opacity violations occur when plants pump out emissions with more soot and particulates than the law allows. New source violations are a trickier matter.
When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, there was the question of what to do with older plants like Fisk, Crawford and the other four named in the EPA notice. Some policymakers wanted to force companies to bring old plants up to the new standards. Other policymakers wanted to let the old plants continue working at past levels.
A compromise was reached. Old plants did not have to meet the new standards unless they made improvements or upgrades. In other words, if an old plant gets new parts, it’s no longer considered an old plant. It must meet Clean Air Act standards for new plants.
“You’re not exempt anymore. You’re not grandfathered anymore. They treat you like a new plant,” Urbaszewski said.
In the EPA notice, the agency found that Midwest Generation had made improvements at all six plants, but kept pumping out soot at the grandfathered levels.
The EPA also found the plants in violation of opacity standards – pumping out smoke that’s too black with soot.
The EPA charted 2,694 minutes of Fisk pumping out emissions violating opacity standards between the first quarter of 2002 and the second quarter of 2006. That comes to about 45 hours – almost two straight days of violation. Between the two units at Crawford, there were 1,926 minutes of violation – just over 32 hours.
Still, the Fisk and Crawford plants had the least violation time of the six named in the notice. The Joliet plant had the greatest minutes of opacity violations with 13,272 minutes between the three units. That comes to nine days, five hours and 12 minutes of pumping out emissions that don’t meet air standards.
In the notice, the EPA stressed that all those numbers are conservative estimates because not all the quarterly reports were available at the time. There were no numbers from 2004 at any of the plants and each of the plants was missing reports from at least one of the other quarters.
Activists such as Urbaszewski and Breuer are quick to point people to a particular study on coal plants in Illinois. Breuer even made it available to the public on the PERRO Web site.
The study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, was the second of four conducted on the health effects of coal plants grandfathered past the Clean Air Act. The Illinois study covered the effects of nine coal plants, seven of which are owned by Midwest Generation.
It estimated that pollution from the Crawford plant could be causing up to 26 deaths, 350 emergency room visits and 1,800 asthma attacks a year in the area studied. Fisk could be causing 15 deaths, 200 hospital visits and 1,000 asthma attacks a year.
That’s not all local. Smoke and soot move with the wind.
“Fisk and Crawford could be causing asthma attacks in Detroit or Green Bay,” Urbaszewski said. “The reason they built tall smokestacks on these things [coal plants in general] is they do want to spread out the problem.”
The area studied was a 750 kilometer by 750 kilometer (about 466 miles by 466 miles) square centered on Chicago. This covers most of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, much of Michigan and sections of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky.
“We were clearly seeing effects at the bounds of our modeling zone,” said lead researcher Jonathan Levy, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
What this means is that the negative effects from the soot didn’t stop. The study area did.
“If we had extended the modeling out farther, we still would have seen effects,” Levy said.
Levy’s study combined three separate types of pre-existing data: What science knows about how smog affects human health, what science knows about how smog moves in air and what science knows about how the air moves.
The study was published in the journal Atmospheric Environment in 2002. Criticism of the study came in the form of a letter to the editor in the same journal.
The letter to the editor criticized the methods Levy’s team used to analyze the threat to human health, saying “several crucial but difficult-to-recognize problems with [Levy’s] analysis compromise its reliability.”
The researchers behind the letter to the editor were funded by Midwest Generation.
“I think when a company’s reputation has been attacked by a study that has never been peer reviewed and isn’t factual you’ve got to do what you can do to clear up any untruths or misperceptions that the public might have about your operations,” Parnell said.
Atmospheric scientist Hanwant Singh, Ph.D., co-editor in chief of Atmospheric Environment, called the publication “a fully peer reviewed journal that has been publishing articles in the science of air pollution for nearly 50 years.”
Singh, who heads a team of atmospheric researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said via e-mail that any article submitted to the journal is first seen by him and co-editor in chief Peter Brimblecombe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of East Anglia in England and the author or co-author of 14 books on atmospheric science. Then the articles are reviewed by two or more referees selected for their expertise in the article’s area and their own record of publications and citations.
“In the last few years the journal rejection rate has been close to 60 percent,” Singh said in the e-mail.
In the end
In addition to Crawford, Little Village also has a plant that burns leftover chemicals from steel shipping drums; a plastic recycling plant moved to the area from Lincoln Park; a recycling plant that takes garbage from eight other neighborhoods; and a 24-acre former asphalt plant that contaminated 170 nearby homes with cancer-causing chemicals.
Pilsen has lead in the soil. It has a smelting plant. It has the sanitary canal. It’s bound on three sides by smog-producing interstates and freight rail.
Rudy Lucas, walking his daughters between a park and a coal plant, chose to move to the suburbs.
Not everyone can.
Not everyone thinks they should have to.