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The Fisk coal plant in Pilsen.

Up in the air: Pollution from Chicago coal plants continues to stir controversy

by Bernard A. Lubell
Feb 23, 2011

Conflicting reports of health effects resulting from two coal plants continue to strike a chord with Chicagoans.

While a previous study conducted by Clean Air Task Force attributes nearly 100 premature deaths last year to the Fisk and Crawford coal plants, a new study released this month claims that less than one-half of 1 percent of particulate matter in the air in Cook County is due to the Chicago plants.  

Midwest Generation, the company that owns the Fisk and Crawford power plants, contracted an environmental consulting firm based in Massachusetts called Gradient to conduct the research.  

The study said even a full year of inhaling the maximum projected levels of particulate matter attributed to Crawford and Fisk would be equal to about 15 minutes per week driving a car on an urban freeway, mowing the lawn twice a year and about 25 minutes per week burning candles in a home, among other analogies.

The Clean Air Task Force, a national nonprofit, said the Gradient study is misleading and uses a different data point than their study. While the Clean Air Task Force used fine particle pollution contributing to death as its data point, the task force said it appears the Gradient study looked at total airborne dust, which is different from fine particle pollution from power plants.  

“They’re saying, ‘we’re a very small percentage of all the small particular matter,” said Jonathan Banks, federal policy coordinator at the task force. “Even though it’s a small amount, that small amount has a large impact on public health.”

Some have taken issue with Midwest Generation hiring the consulting firm, arguing that a positive outcome is likely if a company is hiring its own researchers.

“There seems to be a double standard,” said Douglas McFarlan, spokesman for Midwest. “If the environmental community commissions a report it’s OK, but if the industry commissions the report from recognized experts it seems to be tainted — and I take great exception to that.”

Pilsen Environment Rights and Reform Organization, otherwise known as PERRO, said it stands with the notion that the Fisk and Crawford pollute Chicago air. The coal plants are located in Pilsen and nearby Little Village.

“Even if that number was correct, which we don’t think it is, then that’s still another source of particulate matter,” said Dorian Breuer, spokesman for PERRO. “One thing [Gradient’s] study doesn’t talk about is the particulate matter of nitrous oxide, and those low numbers ignore that source.”

They also don’t take into account sulfur dioxide pollution, Breuer said. The two are large contributors to fine particle matter and dangerous to health, he said. 

Others took issue with the source of the data.  

A spokesman for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago said the Environmental Protection Agency monitors used for the study are located around Cook County — but none is close to the plants. Therefore, he said, the study measures background particulate matter for Cook County but not for the areas closest to Fisk and Crawford.  

A professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University looked at the methodology of Gradient’s study.

“I have more reservations with the claims on health effect,” Professor Harold Kung said in an e-mail. “Not that I have evidence to show the contrary, but their focusing on the uncertainties in previous findings seems very defensive to me … the relationship between asthma with particulates have uncertainties.”

While the debate remains up in the air, McFarlan said Midwest is taking every step possible to be environmentally friendly.

He said projects are underway and on schedule to reform the cleanliness of their coal plants. Illinois regulations required mercury emissions control in 2008 and will require the reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions in 2012 and sulfur dioxide in 2013, he said.  

“With all the uncertainties we face out there, we want to stretch the decisions as long as we can but we’re not delaying the projects.” McFarlan said.

If Midwest performs the full amount of rehabilitation to the plants needed to meet state requirements, the total cost would be upwards of $1.5 billion, he said.