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For seven years, one of the four boilers at the Dallman coal-fired power plant run by the public utility in Springfield, Illinois has been operating without a permit under the Clean Air Act.
The boiler has not been covered by a permit because the permit currently governing emissions from the entire power station is from 2005, years before the fourth boiler was launched in May 2009.
That permit was never actually activated until 2013, though when it was written it was meant to expire in 2010. That means the Springfield plant — like many others statewide — has essentially been operating for years without an updated permit setting emissions limits and other requirements.
Attorney Faith Bugel says this plant is symbolic of a larger problem, wherein many coal plants in Illinois are operating without Clean Air Act “Title V” permits because of the Illinois EPA’s slow pace in processing them and power companies’ challenges to proposed permits.
A one-stop permit
Under the Clean Air Act’s Title V, operating permits set limits on various emissions that are intended to help states comply with limits on the concentration of criteria pollutants under National Ambient Air Quality Standards. State agencies are typically responsible for granting and enforcing Title V permits. And since enforcement of the Clean Air Act depends largely on lawsuits by citizens and advocates, the single permit for different emissions should make it easier for them to monitor compliance.
“Part of the disaster here is that these permits were supposed to be finalized 10 years ago, and that creates issues for enforceability,” Bugel said. “The whole point of the Title V program was to get all the parts of the permit in one place.”
At the Springfield plant, she continued, “They’re 10 years late, and now we have a whole new boiler that hasn’t had a permit for seven years. The Illinois EPA has blown by all the deadlines the U.S. EPA set.”
Amber Sabin, spokesperson for Springfield City Water, Light & Power, which runs the plant, said that the newest boiler still complies with the draft permit and other environmental regulations even though it wasn’t written into the permit. And, she said, “CWLP employs some of the cleanest operating coal plants in the country,” including that boiler.
Now state regulators have made revisions to the proposed permit, including covering the fourth boiler. A public comment period on that proposed permit runs through September; it was extended after a previous July 15 deadline.
Scott Gauvin lives about three miles from the plant and serves as chair of the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club. As he sees it, a strong permit for the Dallman plant is particularly important since it is publicly owned.
“This is a public utility, so we’re trying to get a public process that is a little more transparent, information that is a little more available, not just on environmental issues but financial issues about where the plant stands right now,” said Gauvin.
Questions about the future
The newest 200-megawatt boiler has been the bedrock of the plant’s operation, often single-handedly producing enough power for customers. The three decades-old boilers, which are used primarily during times of peak demand and to generate extra energy to sell to the grid, may need upgraded pollution control equipment to comply with environmental regulations that kick in by 2018. The measures the plant must take to comply will be in part determined by the new permit.
Numerous coal plants in Illinois and nationwide have closed rather than make expensive upgrades. The Dallman plant’s four boilers burn coal to make steam that power turbines to generate electricity.
Sabin said the three older boilers have been converted to burn natural gas during their startup phase, which makes them cleaner. “Ultimately, the deciding factor on continued operation of the older coal-fired units is dependent upon energy prices and final environmental regulations,” she said.
Last year the utility announced that rate restructuring and other measures, including a reduction of 150 employees, were helping improve its financial position after serious blows from the recession and dropping power prices.
“We are a citizen-owned utility,” said Gauvin. “There’s not been the forethought in the planning to understand these regulations coming down the line, and how we should start preparing for them. Whether it’s the air side, the water side, the after-products side — i.e., coal ash — that cost will be passed on to citizen-owners.”
An application for the Springfield plant’s Title V permit was first filed in 1995. After a decade-long process, in 2005 the Illinois EPA issued a permit. But the Springfield utility appealed the permit to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, and the board ruled that the entire permit be stayed while the contested parts were reviewed.
This is a process Bugel sees as a problem statewide. She said that when a company objects to parts of the permit, just those parts should be stayed while under review, and the other pieces of the permit should go into effect. The U.S. EPA has also recommended this approach, and expressed concerns with Illinois’ process.
The IEPA did not respond to a request for comment.
In May 2013, the IEPA and the Springfield utility jointly asked that the uncontested parts of the 2005 permit be put into place, while the contested parts remained stalled. That did occur, and now the proposed revised permit is finally being considered — more than 20 years after the permit application was first filed.
“IEPA has put in place until 2018 a Clean Air Act Permit Program permit that omits many legally applicable requirements, based on an application submitted eighteen years ago and an initial permit that should have expired five years after it was first issued, in 2010,” says a public comment filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.
A challenge on SSM
Meanwhile, those groups allege other insufficiencies including that the plant’s particulate matter emissions violate the State Implementation Plan meant to keep Illinois in compliance with national ambient standards, and that the plant lacks an adequate action plan for when limits are violated.
Bugel said environmental leaders are also concerned that Title V permits often allow coal plants to avoid reporting emissions that are considered to happen during start-up, shutdown and maintenance or malfunction (“SSM”) of equipment. This has been an ongoing issue at the troubled E.D. Edwards coal plant owned by Dynegy in central Illinois, where a judge recently ruled in favor of environmental groups alleging emissions violations.
Bugel said the Springfield power plant could set a positive example for the industry on this front, by agreeing to forego in its new permit what she described as the “loophole” regarding SSM emissions.
Sabin said the utility does not plan any challenges or changes to the currently proposed Title V permit, and she said the utility welcomes public input during the comment period.
“As a not-for-profit vertically-integrated municipal utility, CWLP is more responsive to the citizens and businesses of the City of Springfield” than investor-owned utilities would be, she said.
“The Springfield City Council is responsible for setting our rates and policies and the public can approach our Mayor and City Aldermen to regularly voice concerns with the utility at any of our public meetings. CWLP managers, directors and plant personnel live and work in the community and are engaged with utility customers regularly to know and respond to their concerns, as well.”
A ‘degenerating process’?
Bugel said advocates are hopeful the Springfield plant’s permit will be finalized in coming months, and that the IEPA moves forward on other pending permits. She said the agency appears to be more active than it was last summer when Bugel (representing the Sierra Club) and an ELPC attorney sent a letter to the U.S. EPA complaining about Illinois’ Title V permit backlog and “degenerating process.”
“IEPA and USEPA agreed to a specific timeline to address this issue, but IEPA has not adhered to that timeline,” the letter said. “For example, although IEPA agreed to issue eight permits for coal-fired power plants by July 1, 2015, when that date came it had issued only three in final form.”
They also charged that as permit processes drag on, the proposed permits get progressively weaker.
“The problem is becoming ever larger as each passing year brings with it additional important air pollution obligations, and further dates the already-weak controls” in the proposed permits, the letter said. “This is particularly troubling because, in fact, the permits should be getting stronger.”