The Price of Clean Air

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"Energy reform is far from pain-free."

Bloomberg, Paul Barrett

The Fisk Generating Station in the working-class Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's Lower West Side once symbolized the future. The largest of its kind when it opened, the single-stack, coal-fired plant powered factories and residences throughout a growing metropolis.

That was in 1903. Today, Fisk and its slightly younger sister, the Crawford Generating Station, located nearby in another densely packed area, are relics: two of the more than 200 "legacy" coal-burning plants nationwide that were grandfathered in under 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. As a result of legislative compromise, these aging plants remain exempt from some of the act's main requirements that industrial facilities use modern pollution control methods.

Lawmakers gave Fisk, Crawford, and their ilk a Clean Air Act pass based on the expectation that the old plants would soon close anyway because of decrepitude and inefficiency. The act requires that if such plants are modernized, their owners have to bring them up to code. Congress didn't anticipate that some power companies would forgo modernization. "A lot of utilities have used chewing gum, duct tape, and rubber bands to keep the old plants running, while arguing in court that the changes are merely 'routine maintenance,'" says Henry Henderson, Midwest program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The confounding problem of Chicago's antiquated power plants is more than a local concern.

Republicans and their industry allies warn that assertive regulation will hurt energy providers like Midwest Generation, killing jobs in a fragile economy.

"The employment question is real," says the NRDC's Henderson. "The question is whether we want to preserve ancient plants that are making people sick—and costing us money for hospital stays—or we want to get to work on training workers for the jobs of the future in cleaner energy production and renewables."

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