Over NRG’s objections, Illinois board orders new thermal discharge standards

The Sierra Club is jubilant over a June 4 decision from Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) that the Midwest Generation unit of NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG) says will endanger the lives of the coal-fired Joliet and Will County power plants.

The Sierra Club said in a June 4 statement that the board denied a request from NRG Energy to further weaken a proposed water standard – eight years in the making – to protect the Chicago-area waterways from thermal water effects of its Will County and Joliet plants. The board’s June 4 decision will go to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) of the Illinois General Assembly, which is the final step in this regulatory process. The decision will mean that NRG has three years to implement critical temperature limits for discharged water from the coal-fired power plants along the Lower Des Plaines River.   

Christine Nannicelli, Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a June 4 statement: “Today’s decision is a clear victory for clean water in Chicago. NRG Energy’s back-door attempt to weaken this important water standard at the eleventh hour is yet another example of this corporation failing to live up its own promise that it is a clean energy leader.”

On March 19, the board had adopted a second-notice opinion and order in this rulemaking. The board filed the rule with the JCAR. On May 12, the board agreed with JCAR to extend the second notice period for this rulemaking in order to allow the board to seek additional public comment on temperature. The board received four comments from participants by the June 1 deadline: ExxonMobil Oil; Stepan Co.; Midwest Generation; and jointly the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Friends of the Chicago River, Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, Natural Resources Defense Council and Openlands.

In April 2014, NRG Energy purchased Midwest Generation, including the 761-MW Will County Station and the 1,326-MW Joliet Station Units 9 and 29. The Will County Station discharges to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the Joliet units discharge to the Upper Dresden Island Pool.

Midwest Generation asserted that “[i]f finalized in its current form” the proposed thermal water quality standard “without special and uncertain thermal variance relief” would result in closure of “certain industrial facilities” along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) and the Lower Des Plaines River (LDPR). Midwest Generation supported a six-year extension of the thermal water quality standards for existing sources to allow enough time to design and obtain concurrence from regulators on which studies should be performed, conduct the biological and thermal studies, consult with regulators on the studies’ results and proposed variance terms, prepare a thermal variance petition for filing with the board, and allow adequate time for both the board variance proceeding and subsequent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review of any board-approved thermal variance, as well as possible legal challenges.

Midwest Generation asserted that its Joliet and Will County stations will not be able to comply with the new standards and cannot receive adequate regulatory relief in three years. Midwest Generation argued that it is unreasonable to impose “temporary” standards that threaten to shut down electric generating units and cause the loss of jobs. Midwest Generation said that given the multi-year effort to develop this rule, it is unlikely that the board and Illinois EPA will complete the process of two thermal standards rulemakings within a three-year period.   

The board said its initial acceptance of Midwest Generation’s request to delay the effective date of the thermal standards for three years was a compromise between the interests presented to the board. “Midwest Generation now claims that it needs six years to be able to receive regulatory relief based, in part, on the need to design and obtain concurrence from regulators on what studies need to be performed before conducting the studies. However, very little detail or explanation accompanies these claims,” the June 4 decision added. “The Board has received comments from ExxonMobil and the Environmental Groups supporting the Board’s second notice proposal. In addition, 271 citizens of the State have asked that the Board not retreat from the proposed thermal standards and that the Board implement rules protecting aquatic life as soon as possible. Based on the record, the Board cannot find support for additional delay in the effective date of the proposed thermal standards. However, if Midwest Generation seeks relief through any of the relief mechanisms available, and provides information supporting such relief, the Board would consider the request and might reach a different conclusion, based on the record in that proceeding. But based on this record, including these comments, the Board declines to ask JCAR for an agreement to extend the three-year delayed effective date for thermal standards.”

The board added: “Where dischargers may have compliance issues, regulatory relief may be sought, and the Board is prepared to hear such requests. Therefore, the Board will not suggest to JCAR any changes in the thermal standards or delayed effective date.”

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.