Reynolds is one of a new breed of activist who fights for environmental safeguards but defies the “tree-hugger” label. They align in support of far-ranging goals that stretch the boundaries of 1970s environmentalism: to decrease the incidence of cancers, heart attacks and strokes caused by environmental toxins, to eliminate mercury damage to children’s developing brains, to reduce waste and promote recycling, and to safely eat fish from local rivers, drink pure water, and breathe fresh air. Thanks in part to e-mail alerts and the burgeoning awareness of global warming spurred by former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, this growing volunteer army can be quickly mobilized to speak at local hearings, write letters to politicians and newspapers, and sway public opinion. Behind the legwork are groups such as the Sierra Club and the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which back activists by filing lawsuits to seek redress for environmental damage or to hold up permits for new power plants. Recently these orchestrated campaigns have forced big utilities to factor in environmental responsibility along with profits. When private equity firms proposed a leveraged buyout of Texas utility TXU, environmental groups led by the National Resources Defense Council sought a number of concessions, including dropping plans for eight of 11 new coal-fired power plants in the state. In exchange, environmentalists agreed to cease their objection to the corporation’s sale or its three new plant permits. Here in Illinois, more than 50 groups, from the American Lung Association to the sport-fishing organization Trout Unlimited, united behind Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to control mercury emissions, winning strict new standards that sailed to final passage in January. The new mercury rule will shut down three of the oldest coal-fired plants in the state and dramatically improve air quality by reducing emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. The plan will also remove 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide, one of the main chemicals associated with global warming. “The nexus of mothers, children’s health, environment, public health, and fish-and-wildlife interests came together on this,” explains Max Muller, an environment advocate for Environment Illinois who was involved in setting the mercury standard. Last year, his group alone delivered 5,900 postcards and letters to the Illinois Pollution Control Board in favor of tougher emission controls. “It takes a lot to get businesses to change their practices.”
Forming a broad coalition of interests not typically considered environmental “made us much stronger,” adds ELPC executive director Howard Learner, who helped craft the rule. “We learned that was a different approach that was more effective.”
Faced with widespread public opposition and the threat of imminent legislation, the state’s three major coal-power producers finally negotiated. “We were willing to write a rule that was as easy as possible for them to comply with and still achieve our goals,” Muller recalls. “We had no incentive to design a rule like that until they came to the table.”
First, Ameren agreed to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent at seven power plants in central and southern Illinois by mid-2009 — much faster than the 70 percent reduction required by 2018 under federal rules. Ameren will spend $1.6 billion in technology upgrades for the cleanup, including reductions in nitrogen oxide by 2012 and sulfur dioxide by 2015. The utility will also reduce pollution generated here in Illinois, rather than trading in credits purchased from other states. Next, Dynergy hammered out a pact with state officials to spend $118 million to reduce mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions at plants in Havana, Hennepin, Oakwood, Alton, and Baldwin. The changes will leave those facilities some of the cleanest in the nation. The utility had previously agreed to settle a federal lawsuit and spend $675 million to clean up sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide at the Baldwin facility, located outside St. Louis. Finally, Midwest Generation, one of the state’s biggest coal utilities, negotiated to reduce mercury pollution at three plants — Pilsen, Little Village, and Waukegan — by next year and at Romeoville, Joliet, and Peoria by mid-2009. All six of the plants will cut emissions of nitrogen oxide 68 percent by 2012 and sulfur dioxide 80 percent by 2018.
Government agencies and independent monitoring groups agree that health-threatening toxins are showing up on more environmental tests around the country, but exposure is dangerously high in Illinois and other states that rely on coal for power. Power-plant mercury, which settles in rivers and streams, where it is converted to methylmercury and absorbed by fish, damages the heart, brain, and immune system. The toxin has been linked to an increased incidence of heart attacks, cerebral palsy, lower IQ, and other cardiopulmonary and neurological problems. The state Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that Illinois’s 21 coal-fired power plants emit 71 percent of the state’s mercury pollution, or about 7,000 pounds of mercury each year. Only five other states exceed that level. Power-plant emissions from the nation’s 51 dirtiest coal plants cause 5,500 premature deaths each year, according to the U.S. EPA’s consultant Abt Associates. The Chicago chapter of the American Lung Association calls Chicago the asthma epicenter of the nation, with 23,650 asthma attacks each year and a hospitalization rate close to double the national average. In some neighborhoods, asthma strikes more than a quarter of the children under the age of 12. Of 28 state legislators who volunteered to be tested for mercury exposure last year by the advocacy group Mercury Free Illinois, nine showed dangerous levels exceeding the 1 part per million established by the federal EPA and the Food & Drug Administration for women up to age 49 and children under 16 years old. Environment Illinois reported that the average sport fish taken from 36 Illinois counties, 66 lakes and streams, and 16 fish species exceeded EPA methylmercury limits for children and women of childbearing age who eat fresh fish twice per week. The good news is that sustained cleanup efforts have proved successful. Mercury levels in fish and waterways declined dramatically over 10 to 15 years in the Everglades when Florida cut mercury emissions, according to a report by the Bureau of Water to the Illinois EPA when the rule was being debated. Nonetheless, power plants have long resisted the cost of cleanup and industry groups have promoted the idea that environmental responsibility means a loss of jobs — an argument that today’s activists call a false choice. “Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy,” says environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who spoke last month at Illinois State University in Normal. Kennedy contends that a truly free market would properly value natural resources rather than keeping prices artificially low by protecting polluting industries. “The best thing that could happen to the environment is if we had a true free-market economy,” he says. Polluting corporations who skirt regulation “impose costs on the rest of society that should in a true free market be reflected in the cost of their products.”
Increased mercury levels mean that fishermen can no longer safely eat any catch from the rivers in Illinois and 17 other states, he adds, in large part because of environmental rollbacks in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act under President George W. Bush’s administration. Even so, the ELPC notes that the worst offenders are the inefficient old power plants that were grandfathered in under 1977 revisions to the Clean Air Act, and two-thirds of those are still operating today. Additionally, some two dozen new coal plants have been proposed in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Health and environmental groups pore over these new applications, looking to pressure utilities to add energy purchases of wind power and clean-energy alternatives to their portfolios and hold up permits until utilities design plants with the latest pollution controls available. In October, for example, the Sierra Club won a federal lawsuit in southern Illinois that will bar EnviroPower from using an outdated permit to construct a 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Franklin County. The judge’s ruling means the Benton plant must contain the latest air pollution controls and conform to stricter emissions rules than those required when the original permit was issued in 2001. But the ELPC’s Howard Learner believes, like Kennedy, that these environmental concessions don’t have to come at the expense of jobs. “For years there was that old false myth that it’s jobs versus the environment, and that’s wrong — it’s simply incorrect,” insists Learner, vice chairman of the governor’s Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group, which is working with the state EPA, scientists, and business leaders to identify cost-effective ways to cut greenhouse gases. For example, although the ELPC supports wind energy as a “win-win-win for farmers, rural economic development, and the environment,” Learner says he also backs the coal industry’s global-warming solution of the coal-gasification process known as FutureGen. Two Illinois sites are under consideration for the experimental near-zero-emissions plant — Mattoon and Tuscola — that will utilize coal mined in Illinois and create as many as 1,300 construction jobs and 150 permanent positions once the plant goes online in 2012. Despite the appeal of retaining coal-industry jobs, environmentalists do not universally support FutureGen. Sequestering carbon dioxide underground, the cornerstone of FutureGen’s breakthrough emissions controls, “is a promise that hasn’t been achieved yet,” observes Environment Illinois’s Max Muller. “We don’t want to see the buildup of a whole industry based on untested technology.”
Nuclear is another energy source that rankles most local groups, although high-profile environmentalists such as Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore are defending nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative capable of saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. Both ELPC and the Ecology Action Center, in Normal, whose mission is to reduce waste and promote recycling, oppose Exelon Corp.’s plan to expand its nuclear reactor in Clinton. “Nuclear waste is a huge concern,” explains EAC director Michelle Covi. However, she says, at past hearings intended to gather public input on the plant’s environmental impact the group’s objections to radioactive waste were brushed aside. “They say that’s not the issue here,” she adds. “They’ve got some sort of assurance from the federal government that it will be taken care of someday.”
As new energy alternatives evolve, environmental groups must also keep pace by setting new priorities. About two years ago the Sierra Club called a summit of its leaders, volunteers, and staff to define its direction, says Becki Clayborn, regional rep for the club’s Midwest Clean Energy Campaign. Nationally the group has shifted from advocating land preservation and wilderness to influencing renewable-energy policies and confronting global-warming pollution, she says. As a guideline, Sierra Club adopted a report by the American Solar Energy Society that proposes increasing the renewable sources such as wind and solar to 40 percent of national energy use by 2030. “It says that if we use some specific renewable-energy programs that we can reduce our carbon dioxide emissions 60 percent to 80 percent below 1990 levels, and we can do it without investing more in nuclear or coal,” Clayborn says. The Sierra Club still faces an uphill battle. An alternative report issued by the Electric Power Research Institute has gotten more media attention by calling for a slower renewable-energy rollout, from today’s 1.6 percent to 6.7 percent of the nation’s electric energy portfolio by 2030. Working with CWLP, Will Reynolds, a member of the Sangamon Valley Sierra Club board, urged CWLP to offer consumers a choice of purchasing some power from alternative sources such as wind and solar and to operate more transparently by inviting input and ideas at public forums. Two of these community energy meetings have been held this year, and five more are scheduled, including one at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Illinois National Bank Conference Center, 431 S. Fourth St. A big part of negotiating, Reynolds says, is simply challenging the mindset that coal is locally available, cheap, and “the way things have always been done.” Riding a wave of public opinion, activists can demand that businesses and politicians lead the way to innovative solutions to the country’s energy problems.
“One thing that’s nice about a public utility is the citizens own it, so we can say, ‘This is what we want our utility to do,’ ” he says.
Citizen activists who promote change “can lead to CWLP doing some new and interesting things.”
Joan Villa of White Heath, a regular contributor, has written for Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Her story about wind power, “The new wind rush,” was published in our Sept. 28, 2006 edition.