Sierra Club pressures NRG to shut Midwest Gen coal capacity

With the ink barely dry on NRG Energy’s (NYSE: NRG) tentative deal to buy assets of Edison Mission Energy, including coal-fired power plants in Illinois, environmental groups are launching a pressure campaign to get NRG to shut that at least some of that coal capacity.

NRG announced the tentative deal on Oct. 18, with the agreement needing various approvals, including from Edison Mission Energy’s bankruptcy court, before it is final. The coal plants in Illinois are under EME’s Midwest Generation affiliate, which like EME has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since last December.

The Illinois coal plants included in the proposed sale are Midwest Generation’s Powerton, Joliet 9, Joliet 29, Waukegan and Will County and Powerton coal-fired power plants in central and northern Illinois. The coal plants currently lack modern pollution controls, and are responsible for a combined 3,460 asthma attacks, 321 heart attacks and 206 deaths every year, according the Clean Air Task Force, the Sierra Club claimed in an Oct. 21 statement.

“NRG Energy is now going to be the owner of some of the dirtiest coal plants in Illinois that are repeated violators of clean air and clean water standards in Illinois,” said Tracy Fox, Peoria resident just downwind of the Powerton coal plant and member of the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance. “This pollution costs our communities millions of dollars in health costs and we are very disappointed that NRG apparently plans to continue operating both the Powerton and Joliet stations.”

Energy market analysts have long identified some of these plants, particularly the one in Waukegan, as possible candidates for retirement, the club said. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club contracted with Synapse Energy Economic and released the report “Midwest Generation’s Coal Plants: Too Expensive to Compete.”

“Regardless of ownership, the time is long overdue for this antiquated and environmentally harmful power plant to close—for the good of our lake, our air and our children,” said Preston Kendall, President of Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan. “It’s hard to imagine this plant still running if it were located in some of the other communities in Lake County; the residents of Highland Park or Lake Forest wouldn’t stand for it and neither should Waukegan.”

“We’ve repeatedly called on the company and elected officials to establish a long-term plan for this plant and this sale proves that Midwest Generation had no intention of staying in our community,” said Jennifer Witherspoon, Waukegan resident and President of the NAACP Lake County Branch. “As we saw in NRG Energy’s press release, it has said nothing about its plans for the Waukegan plant and it’s important that NRG work with our community to figure out a reasonable phase-out date and transition plan for the site and the workers.”

In connection with this asset purchase agreement, NRG said in its Oct. 18 deal announcement that it has committed to fund up to $350m in capital expenditures for plant modifications at Powerton and Joliet to ensure federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) compliance. It didn’t specify the emissions projects involved.

Several legal complaints have been filed over the Illinois coal plants

Midwest Generation’s coal plants have faced numerous lawsuits for both alleged clean air and clean water violations.

A lawsuit for numerous claimed violations of the Clean Air Act against all of Midwest Generation’s coal plants is still currently being pursued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Illinois and the community organization CARE, the club noted.

Also, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, CARE and Prairie Rivers Network filed a lawsuit in 2012 for alleged groundwater violations at each of the plants. Before EME filed for bankruptcy in December 2012, the Sierra Club also filed a lawsuit for alleged repeated SO2 emissions violations at each of the coal plants.

On Sept. 26, the Sierra Club filed a motion in EME’s bankruptcy case to allow its complaint for alleged SO2 violations at each of the plants to proceed before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Litigation against a bankrupt company has to go through the bankruptcy court and the club is asking the court to lift that stay to allow the board case to proceed.

Midwest Generation currently operates four coal-fired power plants in Illinois. Note that all of Powerton and part of Joliet are leased from financial entities, with those leases to transfer to NRG Energy.

  • Joliet – These facilities went online between 1959 and 1966. Joliet 6 has a capacity of 290 MW, and Units 7-8, across the Des Plaines River from Unit 6, have a combined 1,036 MW.
  • Powerton – These 1,538-MW facilities went online between 1973 and 1976. Midwest Gen operates four coal-fired boilers and an auxiliary boiler at Powerton.
  • Waukegan – The 689-MW facilities at Waukegan went online between 1958 and 1962. Midwest Gen operates two units at Waukegan with the capability to fire coal, or a mixture of gas and coal, as their primary fuel.
  • Will County – These 761-MW facilities went online between 1957 and 1963. Midwest Gen operates two coal-fired boilers (Units 3 and 4) at Will County. Midwest Gen permanently retired Will County Units 1 and 2 in December 2010.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.