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$164 a Ton

Not all gas emitted by CWLP comes out its chimneys

Illinois Times

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 that was to ensure that the constituents of other towns downwind paid for the pollution created by cheap coal power for Springfield.

I couldn't resist making a few improvements that couldn't be made by my original deadline. Same argument, just more clearly expressed.


The Illinois EPA says that there are 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.


Every citizen of Springfield is a shareholder of sorts in its municipally-owned power system and so has a vested interest in the outcome of this dispute. Predictably, popular indignation hereabouts has rained down like fly ash not on CWLP for being a polluter but on the shoulders of the EPA. Toby McDaniel, the State Journal-Register columnist who speaks for Everyman, 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. 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.


The intent of the tall smokestack built on Dallman 3 was to make it move, by injecting smoke and gases into upper air layers where winds will transport it all out of site, as it were. 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. 


National clean air standards are not the result of legislative fiat but of physics; pollution, especially air pollution, moves from one locale to others. 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. A succession of CWLP officials brag about the scrubber (“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. You 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 fall outside 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 he proposes a rate increase to pay for the proper operation of Dallman 3’s scrubber, as he must do eventually, 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.” ●




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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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." 

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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

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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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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.

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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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

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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.

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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

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

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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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