An Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing for EmberClear's natural gas plant air permit was held Nov. 17 in Pawnee. It was unusually warm that evening for mid-November, with one side of the auditorium packed with union workers, opposite a smaller group objecting to the permit.
EmberClear's project is now called Lincoln Land Energy Center. EmberClear Corporation was formed in 2010. Defined as a coal energy development company at the time, it went on to declare bankruptcy and insolvency just six years later. The company now seeks to build a natural gas plant within one mile of Pawnee's school and downtown. Similar to what the company did as a Canadian-based company, it promised Good Spring, Pennsylvania, dozens of permanent jobs, billions of dollars flowing into the local economy and hundreds of short-term labor jobs. Unable to meet existing financial obligations, EmberClear declared bankruptcy on that venture in 2016. The project never happened.
The beginning of the hearing consisted mostly of support for the project, from an EmberClear engineer, a Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance representative and two union leaders. The focus was on lower utility bills, energy on demand and a boost to the local economy from job creation, both temporary and permanent. After they had their say, that side of the auditorium filed out, en masse.
Here is what they missed.
The mom who spoke of her children with heart and lung issues raised near the school whose lives might have been cut short from these emissions.
The young homeowner of a cherished 172-year-old family home who will have the plant as their neighbor.
A woman who grew up in Neoga, Illinois, describing how a gas company left their community in shambles after a short-term occupation.
A homeowner, dependent on well water, wondering about how his well water would be impacted by the plant's water usage and wastewater.
An avid biker in the area who regularly smells gas during his rides on the local bike trail that parallels a pipeline.
A homeowner terrified of living with the danger of potential gas plant explosions so close to the school and downtown.
And finally, a resident pointed out the potential for EmberClear's wastewater finding its way into Horse Creek, which has a habit of flooding into the school's sports fields.
These testimonies, void of rhetoric, spoke clearly and simply of vital concerns regarding the safety and peace of mind for that area. Officials, at present, appear unmoved by what they had to say.
After hearing their concerns, this is what I found:
With regard to the mother concerned for the health of children living next to the plant, there are volumes of research that cite multiple health hazards for those living near a gas plant. Heart, lung and fetal development issues were listed.
Neoga, Illinois' partnership with the Reliant Energy gas plant began in 2000. In 2006, Reliant Energy won a tax dispute with the county and cut their property taxes by 90 percent. In addition, Shelby County was forced to go back to 2001 to reimburse Reliant with 5 percent interest.
Looking into the Neoga/Shelby County vs Reliant Gas Corporation, I interviewed Tom Schutte from the Neoga school board at that time. What I found was that after Reliant had finished building the gas plant, Reliant approached the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board and removed their generators as taxable property, which was the bulk of the tax benefit from the plant for the county. Ironically, the township placed a tax cap around that time according to the current Neoga school superintendent. The school almost closed. Let this be a heads up to Pawnee and Sangamon County.
"The loss of revenue paired with the need to repay the funds will be devastating to the taxing bodies in Shelby County," said Amber Williams, quoted in the March 17, 2006, Effingham Daily News. The gas plant changed ownership and now has five employees listed on its payroll.
Explosions at natural gas plants are a real concern. Since 2019, three serious natural gas plant explosions have occurred in various parts of the U.S. – in Middleton, Connecticut, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Hayward, California.
The impact of the plant's wastewater leaching into Horse Creek and onto Pawnee's sports field is still unknown until we have seen the plant in action with effective monitoring of how its wastewater is handled. If the plant goes up, extensive monitoring of air and water will be the only way we can truly hold EmberClear accountable for its behavior. How local well water will be affected has yet to be addressed.
Joyce Blumenshine, from Peoria's Sierra Club, offered some practical ways to ensure EmberClear is effectively monitored and held to proper standards. "The draft permit does not use the Best Available Control Technology (BACT) for greenhouse gases. What is in the permit now is too low. Under the Clean Air Act, major stationary sources with greenhouse gas emissions in excess of 75,000 tons per year must adopt the BACT for limiting greenhouse gas emissions." She also recommends that the plant replace the duct burners (some of the dirtiest components of a gas-fired plant) with batteries. In addition, she recommends continuous monitoring of particulate matter. Blumenshine stated that the IEPA has implemented more stringent controls at another facility, so why not here?
Most important is the uncomfortable fact that we have a very short timetable to address a rapidly warming climate. Natural gas, with the amount of methane released from production, has up to 80 times the warming impact on the climate, compared to carbon dioxide. There has been a recent push for natural gas plant production throughout the U.S. and there is the danger this will only delay and sabotage any progress to reset the climate. Bringing jobs through production of renewable energy, changing our behavior, both commercially and individually, is where we will end up going. Can we shift course before it's too late?
Anne Logue is a Springfield resident and instructor at the Springfield Art Assocation, past president and current board member with Sustainable Springfield, and is actively working on restorative landscape on Clear Lake Avenue.