$164 a Ton
Not all gas emitted by CWLP comes out its chimneys
October 20, 1983
Springfield's city government established City Water, Light & Power department in the 1930s to provide cheap electric power for the benefit of its citizens. One way CWLP did was to ensure that the constituents of other towns downwind pay for the pollution created by cheap coal power for Springfield.
The Illinois EPA says that there is at least 11,580 tons of sulfur dioxide littering the planet which wouldn’t have been there if Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power department had operated the flue-gas scrubber on its Dallman 3 generating plant the way it promised it would back in 1977. The EPA has filed a suit against CWLP demanding $1.9 million in damages for its failure to comply with clean air standards. That’s $164 a ton, a number which is meaningless except as a measure of EPA’s impatience.
No one expects that CWLP will actually pay such a fine, of course. In the cops-and-robbers approach to environmental enforcement which has evolved since the 1970s, fines are always reduced by plea bargaining. Besides, EPA doesn’t want CWLP’s money. It just wants CWLP to clean up what the top man in its air pollution control division has called the dirtiest smokestacks in Illinois.
As a citizen of Springfield and thus a shareholder of sorts in its municipally-owned power system, I have a vested interest in the outcome of this dispute. Predictably, popular indignation hereabouts has rained down like fly ash on the shoulders of the EPA. (Toby McDaniel, the State Journal-Register columnist, suggests that officials leave a decrepit downtown parking ramp scheduled for demolition “as is and put the EPA in it.”)
If wit were all that’s missing from this debate, one could endure it more equably. But the tendency to phrase debates about pollution control in terms of dollars and pounds of pollutants tends to deflect attention from what I will risk calling the real issues. National clean air standards are not the result of legislative fiat but of physics; pollution, especially air pollution, moves. Indeed, the intent of the tall smokestack built on Dallman 3 was to make it move, by injecting it into upper air layers where it will be transported out of site, as it were.
Pollution from CWLP’s lakeside generating plants used to be a local problem. Ash and gases from the shorter stacks on older boilers fell—and still do fall—short distances downwind, mainly on residential areas on and near Lake Springfield. The link between industrial cause and environmental effect was thus preserved, to be swept off Springfield driveways and coughed out of Springfield lungs. Taller stacks have moved that fallout farther downwind, perhaps (although the evidence is disputed) as far as New England and the eastern provinces of Canada. Too far in any event to register on local political seismographs.
The EPA and CWLP have been sparring over air pollution control measures for Dallman 3 since the mid-1970s, when CWLP officials tried to plead that the plant, then still-abuilding, was an “existing source” under federal pollution rules and thus subject to much looser emission standards. Indeed, it was only under the pressure of a 1977 court decree that the utility agreed to build the $20 million scrubber to tame Dallman’s messy habits. Nonetheless, anyone who has listened to a succession of CWLP officials brag about it (“CWLP has a strong environmental policy” said CWLP commissioner Paul Bonansinga in 1980 while explaining why the new scrubber would miss its first test deadline), and how it saved jobs for Illinois by enabling Springfield to burn Illinois coal would think that the scrubber was their idea in the first place.
CWLP has not actually denied violating SO2 standards, choosing instead to quibble with EPA about how much it has violated them. In doing so, the utility neatly shifts attention from its culpability to the agency’s arithmetic. The defense mounted by the utility’s spokesmen has left me thinking that, were they able to scrub flue gas as cleanly as they scrub their own public statements, there wouldn’t be an unhappy soybean plant for miles downwind. Al Monson, the utility’s press spokesman, told the State Journal-Register, “We said we would install a scrubber. We did . . . . We said we would operate it. We are.” Monson did not address the issue of whether they were operating it efficiently enough or regularly enough to keep sulfur emissions to prescribed levels. Because they aren’t.
Scrubbers are notoriously balky beasts, and CWLP has had little better luck with its unit than have other utilities. Initial tests showed an encouraging 94 percent removal rate, enough to keep emissions at about a third of the 1.2 pounds per million Btus limit. Alas, it has proven unreliable. A state-of-the-art model, it was to spare its operators the breakdowns which left other Illinois utilities that burn high-sulfur coal wishing they could retrofit their boilers to accept scrubber salesmen. Today, Bonansinga complains that scrubber technology is still so new that the EPA is being unreasonable to expect compliance from “the day you turn it on.”
Perhaps. But CWLP turned on its scrubbers thirty-one months ago. Bonansinga has noted that his scrubber can meet EPA standards; the dispute with EPA is whether it can do so on a regular basis. Bonansinga implies that the differences between the EPA and his department are semantic. But his customers are entitled to join the EPA in asking whether a pollution control system which controls pollution only part of the time can really be called a pollution control system at all.
And Bonansinga, I must admit, is entitled to ask whether his customers care. Department officials (including Bonansinga’s predecessors) have always considered the system’s cost, not its operation, to be the paramount issue. In 1979, for example, then-finance commissioner Jim Dunham suggested that the city fight the consent decree requiring the scrubber’s installation on the grounds that reducing pollution at the new plant from 6 pounds to 1.2 pounds per million Btus constituted an economic hardship on the city. (Indeed, the scrubber’s costs did occasion a sizable rate increase.)
Bonansinga himself hinted at the real reason for the remarkable delays in getting its scrubbers to behave when he told the press that a settlement with EPA might, by requiring expensive changes in scrubber operating procedures, lead to increases in CWLP’s budget. The implication is as inescapable as it is disquieting. The scrubber didn’t work because CWLP officials chose not to spend the money needed to make it work, in order to forestall unpopular rate increases.
Supporters of an elected Illinois Commerce Commission, please note.
I have often wondered whether it mightn’t be wiser for the EPA to insist on short stacks, in the hope that by visiting their fallout in the immediate vicinity they would restore responsibility as an element in public policy-making. Management of CWLP (including its financing) is a local affair, while the consequences of its management transcend our local political boundaries. The weight of those 11,580 tons of SO2 fall most heavily on people and places downwind from Springfield, in the form of elevated infant mortality rates, diminished crop yields, damage to public works, aggravated respiratory and heart ailments, and decimated fish and forest populations.
Since Bonansinga is speaking on my behalf as CWLP commissioner, I’d like to suggest a script. When—and I assume he must eventually—he proposes a rate increase to pay for the proper operation of Dallman 3’s scrubber, he might put the issue to the city like this: “Making electricity requires that one burn coal. Burning coal, especially high-sulfur coal from Illinois, creates poisons which, along with other poisons created from them by chemical reactions, in the atmosphere, can corrode stone and hurt living things. Every time you plug in an electric blanket or turn on a TV set, you add your own share of these poisons to the air. You can’t see them. Nor can you see the people who live in other countries and other states who must pay the costs of the damage done by these poisons when they fall onto their fields, their buildings, and their lungs. But both are real.
“We can reduce the amount of poisons we put into the air, and so reduce the damage they cause these other people. It will cost money. Turning on a TV set will be slightly more expensive. If we don’t reduce them, it will also cost money. Raising food crops, maintaining buildings, and keeping people healthy will be slightly more expensive. The difference is that in the latter case we won’t have to pay.
“It’s your utility. It’s ultimately your choice. And it’s your mess. The issue isn’t just what kind of utility you want. It’s what kind of people you want to be.” ●