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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 11:18 am

The state’s dirty little secret

Sierra Club takes aim at the Capitol power plant

Bill Viele, a stationary fireman, loads coal into a hopper that feeds the No. 3 boiler inside the Capitol power plant.
Just north of the Willard Ice Building, blocks away from Memorial Medical Center and Douglas School, and just a few feet from homes, sits a little coal power plant that most people probably don’t know exists.

One of the main reasons the plant at Madison and Rutledge goes unnoticed is because, unlike the City Water, Light and Power electricity-generating station out on Lake Springfield, this plant doesn’t emit dense plumes of smoke from its lone smokestack. The toxins it emits – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury – are invisible.

But in the case of coal power plants, size doesn’t matter. As a rule of thumb, the older, the dirtier. And the smaller the aged plant, the fewer environmental protections that are in place. In fact, adding pollution controls on old plants is cost inefficient, leaving them without controls and thus dirtier than their larger counterparts.

Environmental groups argue that the Capitol power plant is one example of the hundreds of other small coal boilers across the country at Capitol complexes — including the U.S. Capitol. The plants are also at state-run universities, hospitals and prisons across the nation. They go overlooked by citizens, regulators and the media while large coal-burning utility companies capture all of the attention.

Bruce Biggs, chief engineer of the Capitol power plant. “We’re proud of this building because we run it as efficiently as we can," Biggs says.

Using momentum from the national clean energy movement, from the debate over the American Clean Energy and Security Act now working its way through Congress, and the recent passing of an Illinois capital spending plan, local environmentalists are calling for the Capitol power plant to be shut down and replaced with a cleaner plant.

Will Reynolds, vice-chair of the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club and board member of the Illinois chapter, is spearheading that effort.

“I grew up here and I always saw this random smokestack and never thought much about it,” Reynolds says.  

While doing some digging around, he says he became alarmed on learning that the Capitol plant’s air permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency expired in 2007, how few emission controls the plant has on it, and that mounds of coal sit on the site a few feet away from the sidewalk uncovered and largely unprotected.

Reynolds notes that the General Assembly appropriated $250 million from the state construction bill to replace the aging and woefully inefficient Stratton Building, where steam from the Capitol power plant is converted to chill water for air conditioning. He figures now is the best time to press for a new plant.

Officials say the plant is clean, considering its age.

The organization will begin by asking the IEPA to start the re-permitting process to bring the plant into compliance and, as part of those discussions, to hold a series of public hearings.

“Sierra Club can’t force them to shut down this coal plant but it’s an opportunity for the people of Springfield to say whether we want an aging coal plant with almost no pollution controls in our downtown or whether we want something different,” Reynolds says.

“The whole country and the state are moving towards clean energy — and we should start with our own state Capitol building.”

The power plant doesn’t make electricity, but steam that is used for heating and cooling the Statehouse and 22 other buildings located around the Capitol complex.

Built in 1948 and coming online two years later, the system, which also makes hot water and chill water for air conditioning, was at that time the cheapest way to distribute steam throughout the complex.

There are a total of five boilers — three coal boilers and two natural gas units. On summer days, only one of the coal boilers needs to run. The natural gas boilers, installed in 1973 at the height of the energy crisis and designed to also run on diesel fuel, are used sparingly because coal remains the cheaper fuel.

Officials at the plant, run by the Illinois secretary of state’s office, like to say the plant is clean — for one that’s 60 years old.

Bruce Biggs has been the chief engineer for the Capitol complex since April.

“We’ve spent a lot of money over the years to stay in compliance. We’re proud of this building because we run it as efficiently as we can,” Biggs says.

A baghouse, which collects fly ash, was added in 1990. In 1999, an opacity monitor that measures the toxins emitted from the plant was installed, with the reports generated going to environmental regulators quarterly, semi-annually and annually. The plant is not equipped with sulfur-reducing scrubbers, however.

The natural gas and fuel oil boilers, added in 1973, inside the Capitol power plant. Though cleaner than coal, the gas units are more costly to run and therefore only fired up for testing or when the coal boilers are down for maintenance.

“If you ever notice, you don’t ever see any black smoke coming out of our stack. It’s real clean,” Biggs says.

Additionally, a sample from every truckload of coal that is delivered from Tri-County Coal mine in Farmersville is sent to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources mines division for testing. The plant burns through approximately 14,000 tons of high-sulfur Illinois coal each year. (To provide some perspective, CWLP uses 700,000 tons in the same time period.)

Finely ground coal ash that is left over at the end of the process, along with the dust from the baghouse, is trucked back to the Farmersville mine for storage rather than stored on site.

Of the large black piles of coal outside — 10 to 15 days worth, in case of a snowstorm or workers’ strike — Biggs says there are no requirements to cover it or lock it away.

Verena Owen, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Chicago, says the biggest problem with the Capitol power plant is quite simple.  

“It’s close to people!” she says.

“There are always health concerns with any kind of coal combustion. Certainly they are not in the magnitude of a full outright power plant but they do emit things like particulate matter and mercury. We know that mercury is a terrible pollutant. I’m not saying there’s a ton of mercury coming out of small plants but it’s an additional concern.”

The Capitol plant’s bag houses, she points out, do not mitigate sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), or mercury.

Light and heat from the No. 3 boiler illuminates Kevin Wetter, the assistant chief engineer. Temperatures inside the boiler are 1,200-1,300F.

Another concern she has is coal dust blowing around. “I would think it’s probably more of a nuisance but I wouldn’t want to breathe it. Intuitively, it doesn’t sound like something I would want in my lungs.”

In recent years, the Sierra Club has fought successfully to keep about 100 new coal-fired power plants from being constructed in the U.S. In 2006, the group, which is based in San Francisco but has a strong presence in Illinois, waged a contentious public battle with the city of Springfield to add more pollution controls to the new Dallman IV power station, purchase wind energy and implement citywide energy efficiency programs.

Now the Sierra Club is gearing up to take on old dirty boilers common at large government buildings and campuses like the Illinois Capitol’s. In addition to Illinois, Alaska, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin all use coal-fired boilers at state-run colleges and universities.

In Illinois, that includes the flagship university at Champaign-Urbana, Eastern Illinois University, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Others are located at the Danville, Vienna and Lincoln state prisons, Jacksonville Developmental Center, Choate Developmental & Mental Health Center in Anna, Lincoln Developmental Center, and Warren G Murray in Centralia as well as the Illinois Veteran’s Home in Quincy.

Owen points out that, unlike large power plants, these small plants are located in the middle of communities of patients, students and neighbors. In addition to being one of the leading contributors to global warming, coal emissions have been linked to heart disease and respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

“If you live right next to it for 20 years, I don’t know what it does to you,” she says.

The Sierra Club may not have a very tough fight on its hands as far as the Capitol plant is concerned.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office has submitted a $45 million request for a new power plant to the Capital Development Board, which oversees state construction projects.

“If CDB were to provide us with the funding, we’d certainly be interested in building an even more efficient plant,” says White spokesman Henry Haupt.

The CDB is also currently finishing up a new Capitol complex master plan, scheduled to be released in the coming weeks.

Biggs, the engineer, says in all likelihood a new facility would be a biomass plant that could burn anything from coal to Christmas trees. And even at $45 million, rebuilding would be cheaper than retrofitting the existing coal boilers.

Whether they get the money or not, Reynolds, the Springfield activist, is confident the plant won’t be around much longer.

“I think it’ll shut down,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.” 


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