The Will County Generating Station in Illinois. Credit: Darius Norvilas / Creative Commons

As Illinois officials seek to cut sulfur dioxide levels in two areas, a company that touts itself as a clean-energy leader is ironically using the process to seek an exemption for installing pollution controls at one of its coal plants.

In 2013, NRG Energy purchased six Illinois coal plants from the bankrupt company Midwest Generation: two Chicago plants that had shut down in 2012, and four more that continue to operate.

The four remaining plants are all subject to an agreement signed with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2006 to install pollution controls for mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by certain dates.

Now, NRG is seeking an exemption to that deal for one of the state’s major sulfur dioxide emitters – unit 4 at its Will County coal plant – as part of the state’s new rules meant to bring that area into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Illinois is required to come up with a plan this year to reduce sulfur dioxide levels in Lemont and Pekin – the state’s two non-attainment areas under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for sulfur dioxide set in 2010.

The Will County plant is in the Lemont area, and the town’s air quality is also impacted by NRG’s nearby Joliet coal plant. NRG’s Powerton plant is in the Pekin area.

In April, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) proposed a rule to the Illinois Pollution Control Board meant to bring the areas into attainment, in part by addressing the conversion of coal plants to natural gas or diesel fuel.

NRG is planning to convert the three-unit Joliet plant to natural gas, and at a public hearing on July 29 state officials said that Will County’s other unit (unit 3) could also be converted to run on natural gas.

One of three units at Joliet currently has an exemption from installing sulfur dioxide controls under the 2006 rule. So NRG requested, and the Illinois EPA agreed, that this exemption could be transferred to Will County’s unit 4, which is expected to continue burning coal.

The Illinois EPA said in filings and testimony at public hearings that Lemont is expected to be in attainment, so the exemption should not be a problem.

Clean air groups questioned the IEPA’s conclusions and the modeling the agency used to make them. And they said the issue of NAAQS attainment should be considered irrelevant to the agreement NRG’s predecessor, Midwest Generation, made to install sulfur dioxide controls by the end of 2018 at Will County unit 4.

A series of three public hearings on the proposed rule were recently completed, and a public comment period is open until August 28. After that the Illinois Pollution Control Board will decide whether to move the IEPA’s proposed rule forward, and finally it must be approved by an administrative body made up of state legislators. (See the case docket here.)


An adequate plan?

The IEPA said in its initial filing for the rule that it “strongly supports” the conversion of the coal plants to natural gas or low-sulfur diesel, since such conversions would mean lower sulfur dioxide emissions while also reducing other pollutants and helping the state meet its Clean Power Plan obligations to reduce carbon dioxide.

While clean air advocates generally prefer natural gas-fired plants to coal, they say NRG’s conversions should not mean it gets to avoid installing sulfur dioxide controls at Will County.

IEPA air quality planning section manager David Bloomberg said at a July 29 public hearing in Will County that the agency’s modeling shows the new rule would bring Lemont into compliance with the Clean Air Act’s sulfur dioxide standards without sulfur dioxide controls being put on the Will County plant.

Exhibits in the case docket show that in both the Lemont and Pekin areas, annual average sulfur dioxide concentrations have decreased significantly over the past three decades.

NRG spokesman David Gaier said that transferring the exemption from the Joliet to the Will County plant means “our emissions would still meet the intent” of the 2006 agreement.

Bloomberg said it would not be possible to predict how much greater emissions from the Will County unit would be without the flue gas desulfurization controls the plant would have to install under the 2006 agreement. Testimony also indicated it is not clear exactly how the Joliet plant affects air quality in the Lemont non-attainment zone.

In response to a question from Keith Harley, attorney for the Will County citizens group CARE, Bloomberg acknowledged that the IEPA did not specifically model the proposal to transfer the exemption. Bloomberg noted that there are more than 3,000 emissions sources included in the models IEPA ran, and indicated that modeling individual variables would not be feasible.

Environmental groups and their expert witnesses, however, argued that the agency should do more detailed modeling and more real-time monitoring in order to come up with a meaningful rule.

Closed unit reopening?

At the July 29 hearing, IEPA officials Bloomberg and Jeff Sprague testified that in addition to the Joliet conversion, NRG also may burn natural gas at Will County’s unit 3, which was taken off-line in April 2015.

“It is my understanding that they will be switching to natural gas” at unit 3, Bloomberg said. Sprague, manager of modeling for the IEPA’s air quality planning section, added that the company “has indicated that under unusual circumstances, if there’s a great need to add power to the grid that they can bring unit number three back online. So it’s conversion of coal to natural gas with fuel oil backup.”

Gaier, however, said the company has “no plans” to restart Will County unit 3 on natural gas or diesel.

Christine Nannicelli of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Beyond Coal Campaign, said this is the first that clean air groups have heard about the possibility of restarting the Will County unit, and that reopening a fossil fuel-burning unit, even with natural gas, would be a step backward for the environment.

The proposed rule also includes a requirement that ultra-low-sulfur diesel be used in power plants statewide. Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Faith Bugel asked at the public hearing how this standard would be enforced, since plants are not necessarily required to have permits governing their fuel’s sulfur content.

Bloomberg said the agency would ensure that fuel distributors only sell ultra-low-sulfur diesel to plants, noting that ultra-low-sulfur diesel is already the norm in the state and some distributors actually believe it is illegal to sell anything else. Gaier said that at NRG, “all fuel orders will specify that suppliers deliver ultra-low-sulfur diesel.”

Setting limits but breaking promises?

The proposed rule includes specific sulfur dioxide limits, in pounds per hour, for more than 30 specific operations in the Pekin and Lemont areas, including the NRG power plants along with Dynegy’s E.D. Edwards coal plant and several other industries.

The new limits are significantly lower than previous allowed limits – from 32,000 down to 2,000 pounds per hour for E.D. Edwards unit 1 and 2; almost 5,000 down to 145 for Will County unit 3; 9,000 down to 6,500 for Will County unit 4 and 30,000 down to 3,500 for Powerton.

Gaier said that NRG’s investments in pollution controls have already cut sulfur dioxide levels 90 percent at its Illinois plants, while cutting carbon emissions by about 60 percent and nitrogen oxides by 65 percent.

But sulfur dioxide emissions from individual units – namely Will County unit 4 – still  need to be slashed, clean air advocates say.

“In 2014, the Clean Air Task Force used EPA’s modeling techniques to calculate the health impacts of emissions from coal power plants,” testified Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, at the July 29 hearing.

“They found that Will County’s operating units led to 21 deaths, 33 heart attacks, 360 asthma attacks and 15 hospital emissions. Unit 4 is roughly twice the size of the recently apparently shuttered Unit 3, and logic would hold it would be responsible for roughly two-thirds of those health impacts.

“If Unit 4 is run even more often in the future, the health damage would be greater. If it continues to run, Unit 4 needs a scrubber.”

The bottom line, clean air groups say, is that companies should be forced to comply with the 2006 agreement to install specific pollution controls regardless of what they do at other plants and regardless of the rule being crafted to achieve NAAQS attainment.

“Non-attainment was never on the table when those [2006] rules were agreed to – that was a commitment no matter what,” said Nannicelli. “So we think that request [for the exemption transfer] is certainly unlawful, another example of a company claiming to be a clean energy leader, but continuing to skirt obligations and certainly leaving the Will County community behind.

“The big message is that NRG should not be exempt from this obligation to install life-saving pollution controls they had agreed to in purchasing the fleet.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.