Dynegy's Newton coal plant in Illinois. Credit: AP Photo/Jim Suhr, File

The Illinois Pollution Control Board is taking public comments on an amended emissions rule for Dynegy’s coal plants in the state.

Last year, the pollution control board had put forth rules written by the Illinois EPA with much input — even line edits — from Dynegy itself, as emails and documents obtained by environmental groups showed.

Clean air advocates say the new proposed rules are better than those earlier ones but still do not do enough to limit pollution from the aging coal plants.

“They are lower than what Illinois EPA was proposing and lower than what Dynegy is asking for, but still significantly higher than what the company has emitted in recent years,” said James Gignac, lead Midwest energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The company Vistra, which acquired Dynegy this year, released a statement saying it supports the pollution control board’s proposal, which includes stricter emissions caps than those previously recommended but keeps intact what’s known as a mass-based approach, in which the company gets a flat, fleet-wide cap instead of one based on the amount of power generated, or a rate-based approach. The proposal also includes a measure ardently backed by clean air advocates: that when a plant closes or is “mothballed,” the emissions it had been allowed be removed from the total cap.

Clean air advocates say they feel they are now in a waiting game, with much hanging on the public comment period and how the board responds to comments, including whether it makes total emissions caps for the plants stricter.

Dirty and clean plants

Opponents of the mass-based approach fear it will let Dynegy continue running or ramp up its dirtier coal plants, while potentially closing or ramping down cleaner plants that are more expensive to run.

“Any plant under a mass-based approach can pollute more and another one can pollute less — it still means an older plant with less pollution control can up its emissions,” said Toba Pearlman, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “[The recent proposal] is probably good for Vistra and bad for the people that live around the plants… We do think this is part of a larger strategy for Dynegy to squeeze Illinois for more money on their plants.”

The NRDC and Sierra Club in May released a report showing that Dynegy’s coal plants could close without affecting Illinois’ energy supply, noting the plants’ output could be replaced with renewable energy.

Vistra’s statement praised the latest proposal for allowing the company “the flexibility to assess and optimize its fleet of power plants to compete in the market.” It added that while Vistra’s subsidiary Luminant, which controls the plants, “supported the IEPA proposal, the company believes the IPCB proposal to be thoughtful and reasonable. Luminant will work constructively through the remainder of the process and looks forward to fully implementing the new standards.”

Dynegy acquired the five plants in 2013, with then-owner Ameren practically paying the company to take them off its hands. Since then Dynegy has worked on multiple fronts to try to keep the plants profitable, including a failed attempt to include supports in the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act and an ongoing effort to change capacity market structures or switch markets, along with pushing for less stringent pollution requirements.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, noted that the pollution limits being amended have been on the books for a decade.

“They had plenty of time to adjust and retrofit their plants to come into compliance,” he said. “When Dynegy bought those plants, they knew what the standards were. And when Vistra bought Dynegy, they knew…but when the deadline came, they turned to a backroom deal.”

High public interest

With a 45-day public comment period running through mid-November, stakeholders wonder whether the final rules will be delayed significantly if the makeup of the pollution control board changes under a new administration. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, is in a close race with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker in November’s election.

“The pollution control board rejected the backroom deal between Dynegy and the Illinois EPA under Governor Bruce Rauner that would have significantly weakened Illinois clean air standards,” said Learner. “That really leaves it up to the next governor… If Governor Rauner is re-elected we’ll see if his views have changed, and if J.B. Pritzker is elected we hope he’ll be more respectful of protecting the health of the people of Illinois.”

Stakeholders can file comments on any aspect of the proposed rules and the pollution control board can still change its proposal, but advocates say it is unlikely the mass-based approach would be altered since the board asked for feedback on specific questions that have to do largely with how the mass-based cap would be implemented.

The questions include when the compliance date for mass-based limits should start, how calculations will be done when plants are closed or mothballed, and how long a plant can be mothballed, or temporarily closed. The questions offer stakeholders the chance to push for stricter overall emissions caps but likely not to change the mass-based approach, as Gignac and others see it.

The proposed rules reduce the annual mass-based caps for SO2 from 55,000 tons per year to 44,920, and for NOx from 25,000 tons per year to 22,469, compared to the rules the Illinois EPA and Dynegy had sought. The limit for NOx during ozone season remains the same, at 11,500 tons.

The pollution control board had taken public comment and held three two-day hearings on the previous version of proposed rules. The current public comment period, which will include a public hearing, was called because of “on-going disagreements among the participants over these fundamental issues, as well as by the significance of this rulemaking, reflected in its high degree of public participation,” as the board wrote in its October 4 order.

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.