Monday, February 13, 2012
Jose More Photography/Chicago News Cooperative
For years, environmental and health organizations have called for the closing of the 83-year-old coal-fired State Line Power Station, one of the Chicago area’s top polluters.
Now the plant, which is in Hammond, just across the Indiana border on Lake Michigan and adjacent to Calumet Park, is burning through its last stores of coal. It will stop generating electricity by March 31. Federal air quality regulations that take effect in coming years and — more immediately — competition from inexpensive natural gas make it uneconomical to run the plant, according to Dominion Resources, the Richmond, Va., company that bought it in 2002.
While many environmentalists are cheering the closing, it raises new environmental and land-use challenges. It will also be an economic blow to Hammond, and to about 100 employees, most of them members of the United Steelworkers union and many who have worked there for decades.
“It’s not a good thing for the city economically, but at the same time the air we breathe will be a little cleaner — what’s that worth financially?” said Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. of Hammond.
Similar situations are playing out nationwide as aging coal plants close, including a Dominion plant in Salem, Mass.; six Midwestern and Eastern coal plants owned by FirstEnergy Corp.; and, potentially, the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago in coming years.
Lower natural gas prices from the increase in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale gas deposits have made it much less profitable to produce electricity from coal. This is especially true for facilities like State Line and the Chicago coal plants, which sell electricity on a highly competitive short-term wholesale market rather than through long-term contracts.
“These companies bought coal plants based on certain assumptions about the price of natural gas,” said William Boyd, a professor of energy law at the University of Colorado. “Shale gas turned their world upside down, and retrofitting old coal plants to meet new environmental regulations doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Some coal plants elsewhere in the country have been retrofitted to burn natural gas. But Dominion and Midwest Generation, which owns the Chicago plants, said converting would be too expensive.
Doug McFarlan, a spokesman for Midwest Generation, said, “We will continue to evaluate numerous factors — including the capital expenditures required to comply with environmental regulations and market conditions that impact our ability to recover costs — in making decisions about future investments in any of our power generating units.”
Dominion had planned to close State Line in 2014, but last summer the company said the plant would be shut down by March.
Environmental advocates have long said the sooner the better, since medical studies link emissions from coal plants to higher rates of asthma attacks, cardiac disease and premature death among surrounding residents.
Old coal plants like State Line — the current boilers date to 1955 and 1963 — have not had to meet the same environmental regulations as new plants. Environmentalists have portrayed State Line as a justice issue because three-quarters of nearby residents are minorities and almost one-fifth live below the poverty line.
Even so, the closing will have serious economic consequences for the already struggling area. State Line is the biggest property tax payer in Hammond, at about $4.5 million a year.
At Pucci’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, which for decades has delivered food to overtime workers and served beer and pizza to men dropping by after their shifts, the prospect of cleaner air does not count for much.
“It’s almost a tragedy,” said Frank Pucci, an owner of the restaurant. “Some of my best customers are losing their jobs. I’ve been in the area all my life, and nobody ever talked about the so-called pollution from State Line.”
Moving up the closing date is a major frustration for about 30 workers who turn 55 between now and 2014. Employees who are 55 and older when laid off can continue to purchase moderately priced health insurance through Dominion, but younger workers cannot.
“With our exposure to coal dust, mercury, welding gases — I don’t know what my medical future will be,” said Jeff Kuzma, 52, a welder who has worked at the plant for 33 years.
Dan Genest, a spokesman for Dominion, said other employers had called wanting to hire their workers, and the company is hosting a job fair on Thursday. But workers are skeptical.
“We all know age discrimination is against the law, but realistically these companies are going to want someone who can put in a lot more years,” said David Weaver, president of Steelworkers Local 12502, who started as a janitor at State Line 30 years ago and worked his way up to control room operator.
As the shutdown nears, urban planners, environmental leaders and elected officials are envisioning new uses for the property, including transforming it into a park that would connect existing Chicago and Indiana bike trails or making it the site of a wind or solar farm. There have also been calls to preserve the plant’s Renaissance revival architecture, with its intricate brickwork.
Environmentalists, however, fear the site may be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals, which could potentially run into the lake during rains or leach into the groundwater.
Jim Norvelle, another Dominion spokesman, said the company currently had no plans to test the site for contamination, or to sell or develop it for recreational, commercial or alternative-energy uses.
Officials at the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said they had no information indicating that the site was releasing hazardous waste. Unless new information comes to light, there are no government mandates for testing or cleanup.
Howard A. Learner, the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest environmental advocacy organization, has called for an independent evaluation of the site.
According to Environmental Protection Agency records, chemicals released into the air by the plant in 2010 included nearly 30,000 pounds of sulfuric acid, 1,180 tons of hydrochloric acid and 143 pounds of mercury. It released a total of about 44,000 pounds of copper, barium, zinc and lead into Lake Michigan, the federal records said.
“We don’t know what’s there, but there are some red flags,” Mr. Learner said. “This is the tip of the iceberg of a broader problem as more old coal plants shut down.”