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Victims and Perpetrators

Just the facts, ma’am: Illinois and acid rain

Illinois Times

December 3, 1987

A good explainer about a once-crucial public issue—acid rain from Illinois coal-fired power plants. Illinois policy-makers, for the most craven of political reasons, had for decades been willing to sacrifice Illinois land, the nation’s air, and the public health to protect the jobs of a few coal miners in a few counties in the state. In the thirty-some years since the piece was written, acid rain has disappeared from the headlines, thanks to flue gas scrubbers and the phasing out of service of the dirtiest power plants or their conversion to cleaner-burning coal from western states.


"Considering what we know and don't know about the science of acid rain, it seems prudent to incorporate a measure of patience in our policy," reads a just-published acid rain study from the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. "The State is concerned that mandatory sulfur dioxide reductions will result in economic impacts that are disproportionate with our contribution to the environmental problem."


Usually when an Illinois executive agency speaks on the topic of energy and the environment, you can see the lips of the big coal and utility lobbies moving. "Patience" in their lexicon translates into plain English as "delay," and "prudent" in this context means "profitable." As even viewers of TV news know by now, a tough national program to control the sources of acid rain means either punishing electric rate increases for some companies (to pay for scrubbers) or aggravated unemployment in Illinois coal towns (the result of utilities switching to low-sulfur coal from Western states).


DENR's study, however, speaks with a voice of its own in making a series of important points about this issue, even if the words end up sounding familiar. For example, the science of the long-range transport and chemical transformation in the atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (the major acid rain precursor hereabouts) remains a shaky basis for any program (except, perhaps, the further study of long-range transport). What is known includes: l) what goes up must come down; 2) roughly two-thirds of what goes up comes down no farther away than 600 miles; 3) reducing what goes up reduces what comes down, but only partly. What is not known, and may not ever be known, is how to trace emissions from Power Plant A in Illinois to Lake B in upstate New York.


Trying to track the fate of emissions from, say, Commonwealth Edison's Kincaid plant near Pawnee—a plant whose annual sulfur dioxide output of 174,000 tons has earned it a place among the nation's "filthy fifty" emitters—is like trying to link the cough of a particular party-goer to a particular cigarette in a smoke-filled room. Atmospheric processes fall into that class of natural phenomena that are sometimes described as not only more complicated than we know but more complicated than we can know. Because of this, Ned Helm of the sort-of-pro-controls Acid Rain Coalition explained from Washington the other day, "The argument has shifted away from identifying which sources can be associated with damage to which lakes." One should note that the argument has shifted toward controlling sulfur dioxide as part of a more generalized air pollution problem which includes nitrous oxides, ozone, and particulates. The issue is no longer whether Illinois will have to take part in a national acid rain control program, but on which terms.


The economic stakes are significant, if not as disastrous as the coal and power industry has tried to suggest. (As is true of many old married couples, it's hard not to refer to them as a single conjoined entity.) Predictions of a few years ago that electric rates would double for some customers have given way to DENR’s calmer estimate that rates under one of the more popular control proposals would have to rise maybe eight percent overall, with even the most affected companies needing at worst a 25 percent rise. Job impacts, while significant, would be local. Under DENR's worst-case scenario, mining jobs would shrink by 6,500. In a state in which even former governors have a hard time making honest livings, such losses should not be sneered at. But protecting jobs at any cost is folly; ask British Steel.


Allocating the blame for acid rain is a necessary political preliminary to allocating the costs of stopping it. Some of the first control plans offered in Congress proceeded from the apparently simple principle, "the polluter pays." Reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions were mandated whose achievement would cost hundreds of millions to Midwest utilities burning high-sulfur coal, who were offered neither construction subsidies or rate relief to soothe those hurts.


Such proposals expressed the morality of acid rain as it was then understood. But who exactly is the polluter in such cases? Is it the utility company who profits from the sale of dirty electricity? Or is it the customer who enjoys its use? Utility regulation makes the point philosophically moot, since each company's cleanup costs presumably would be passed on to its customers in rate hikes. Politically, however, the point remains crucial.


Sulfates, you see, are not the only thing which moves across state lines. Electricity does too. A recent report from the environmental think tank, INFORM, argues that the familiar scenario in which acid rain policy is acted out by "victim" states and "perpetrator" states and "bystander" states is flawed for that reason. The victimized Northeast for example is a major importer of electricity, some of which is produced by coal-burning Midwest power plants. The power customer in such cases becomes both victim and perpetrator, with the distant Midwest reduced to bystander.


INFORM argues for the allocation of cleanup costs according to who benefits from coal-generated power, not who generates it. Ashley Brown of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission in fact suggests that one way to curb acid rain is not just to build scrubbers but to build more transmission lines connecting the Midwest to the rest of the country. “By increasing the interstate commerce in electricity," Brown told me, "you can spread the cost of cleaning up coal emissions. Essentially, you nationalize cost-recovery."


Of course, what looks like a polluter to a philosopher often looks like something else to a regulator. Midwest power plants were made the target of most early control plans because they were seen to be contributing disproportionately to the problem. After all, most of the sulfur dioxide in U.S. skies (three-fifths or thereabouts) comes from this part of the country and most of that (nearly 77 percent in Illinois for example) came from power plants. But such plants are not the only sources of S02. Other plants, in the Midwest as elsewhere, may emit at a lower rate (usually measured in pounds of sulfur dioxide for every million Btus of heat produced) but they still emit sizable amounts of S02. Smaller boilers (including some used in industry) may have hideously high rates of emission but, because they are small, don't put out that much actual S02 compared to their bigger cousins.


What then constitutes "excess" emissions? Too high a rate? Too high a tonnage? Do you seek the largest emissions reductions per dollar spent, in effect making cost the criterion? Or do you insist that a given class of emitters meet a single standard for the rate of emissions? Or do you seek to reduce the actual tonnage of pollutants emitted, in proportion to an individual plant's, or class of plants', contribution to the total pollution load being borne by the atmosphere?


A cloud does not discriminate between a molecule of S02 according to whether it originated in a power plant or a factory boiler, in an efficient boiler or an inefficient one, whether it blows in from the West or the Midwest. DENR's bright boys and girls argue that since acid rain is a function of the total atmospheric loading of sulfur dioxide (with nitrous oxides) a control program which excludes certain types of boilers or uses emission rates rather than total emissions as a standard "may be expedient . . . but it is not equitable in its treatment of Midwestern states."


Indeed, "inequitable" is another way to spell "Waxman-Sikorski,” the congressmen-coauthors of the most-supported control bill in the 199th Congress. Under that plan, Texas would have had to make no reductions even though in 1980 its plants pumped nearly 1,300,000 tons of S02 into the air. Illinois, in contrast, had total emissions that year which were only marginally larger (1,500,000 tons) but it would have to reduce its total emissions by 709,000 tons, or 48 percent. Indeed, one can reduce total emissions nationwide by 10 million tons using different formulae which would require that anywhere from 753,000 to 555,000 tons of it come from Illinois.


Naturally, requiring already-efficient boilers to achieve further economies, or requiring small ones to achieve expensive ones, is itself inequitable. Cost-effectiveness, alas, has little to do with fairness, just as fairness has little to do with justice. Acid rain is that rare thing, a problem with too many solutions. DENR offers two new ones in its reports; Congress is working on several more. None is likely to be passed soon, and all will likely end up having to be much more complicated than anyone a few years ago would have thought. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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