Sierra Club touts early win in dispute over Midwest Generation emissions

The Sierra Club on Jan. 9 celebrated a decision the prior day from the Illinois Pollution Control Board that gave it a procedural win in a dispute over the coal-fired emissions of Midwest Generation (MWG), which has since the case was started been taken over by NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG).

The board denied NRG’s attempts to dismiss Sierra Club’s enforcement case alleging sulfur dioxide emissions from NRG’s coal-fired power plants in Waukegan, Joliet, Romeoville and Peoria present a threat to public health in violation of Illinois’ Environmental Protection Act. The decision calls for the case to proceed to a hearing.   

In response to the decision, Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, saiid Jan. 9: “The Pollution Control Board’s decision is a resounding affirmation that polluters cannot come to Illinois and expect a free pass from compliance with critical state laws that protect public  health. The Board confirmed that the Sierra Club’s allegations of air pollution from NRG’s coal plants merit real action under state law.”

Sierra Club alleges in a complaint filed in December 2012 that violations occurred at four coal-fired plants owned and operated by MWG: Joliet #9 and #29 in Joliet, Will and Kendall counties; Powerton Generating Station in Pekin, Tazewell County; Waukegan Generating Station in Waukegan, Lake County; and Will County Generating Station in Romeoville, Will County. This enforcement action was stayed for a number of months by MWG’s filing of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition at a time when it was a subsidiary of Edison International (NYSE: EIX). After the automatic stay was lifted, MWG on Feb. 18, 2014, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as frivolous.

“For the reasons below, the Board today denies the motion to dismiss in its entirety and accepts the complaint for hearing,” said the Jan. 8 decision. “MWG has 60 days from the date of this order to file an answer.” The decision noted that this is not a finding on the merits of the Sierra Club case, just a decision on whether the case can move forward to the next stage.

The Sierra Club alleges that in 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) established a more stringent National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for SO2 after determining that the existing standard was inadequate to protect human health. Sierra Club reports that USEPA established a new one-hour standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) or 196 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air. Sierra Club claims that the 2010 1-hour NAAQS “seeks to prevent spikes in short term concentrations of SO2 in the air by preventing concentrations above 75 ppb in the highest 1-hour period of the day, and determines compliance based on the 4th highest such period each year.”

Sierra Club states that MWG’s plants “have permitted SO2 emission limits of 1.8 pounds of SO2 per million Btus [British Thermal Units] of heat input (lb/MMBtu).” Sierra Club claims that, if the sulfur content of the coal used in the plants is high enough, the plants “could exceed” these permitted rates. Sierra Club argues that, because the 1.8 lb/MMBtu limits applies on a basis longer than one hour, emissions in a particular hour can “vastly exceed” that permitted limit. Sierra Club alleges that MWG’s SO2 emissions threaten a violation of the 1-hour SO2 NAAQS even at the permit limit of 1.8 lb/MMBtu. Relying on results of computerized dispersion modeling, Sierra Club claims that MWG’s SO2 emissions threaten a violation of the 1-hour SO2 NAAQS without considering emissions from other sources. 

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.