Illinois Public Media News
A report out by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that pollution levels stayed the same and even improved throughout the state.
The agency gathered data from 80 monitoring sites across the state, and concluded that air quality was good or moderate 96 percent of the time in 2009. The study focused on an array of pollutants, including toxins, soot, and dust. There were 13 days last year when air quality was considered unhealthy for sensitive groups in certain areas, compared to 14 days in 2008. EPA Spokesperson Maggie Carson said pollution tends to be a larger problem in more congested cities, like Chicago and the St. Louis Metro East area. She said there weren't any major red flags raised about the air quality in Central Illinois.
"Central Illinois generally has pretty good air quality," she said. "We're blessed by a lot of white collar, a lot of agriculture (jobs), and neither of these contributes tremendously to air quality problems."
According to the report, The Quad Cities has the lowest level of pollution with good air quality 86 percent of the time in 2009. Other communities to follow include Peoria, Champaign, Normal, and Decatur, which had good air quality more than 78 percent during the same period.
Still, Carson said there are still environmental challenges that the state has to overcome.
"As long as we have industry, as long as we have cars burning gasoline on our roads, we're going to have air quality issues that we're going to have to deal with," she said. "It's just a fact of life in modern American and in this state.
A company that's now building a wind farm in Iroquois County hopes to receive permits next week to build a second facility that would straddle the Iroquois-Ford County line.
E.ON Climate and Renewables wants permission to build up to 111 wind turbines in Ford and Iroquois Counties near the towns of Loda and Paxton. Most of the turbines would go up in Ford County.
Ford County Zoning Officer Larry Knilands said E.ON officials would like to start work on the project next year.
"They wanted to get a contract signed, as far as a road agreement, construction permit, you name it --- everything taken care by warm weather, so that they might be able to start construction by, say, October (of 2011)," Knilands said.
But Knilands said the signing a road agreement could be the difficult part of the process. He said negotiations on road agreements for two other wind farm projects in Ford County has delayed their construction --- one has been on hold for two years.
"We have to make sure that whatever road agreement we establish the first time around is something that will apply to any other wind farm company that comes along," Knilands said.
E.ON is currently building a separate wind farm in eastern Iroquois County. Both the Ford and Iroquois County Boards are scheduled to vote on zoning permits for the 2nd E.ON wind farm project at their regular meetings next week.
The Ford County Board will meet Monday, December 13th at 7 PM at the Ford County Jail in Paxton. The Iroquois County Board meets Tuesday, December 14th at 9 AM, at the county Administrative Center in Watseka.
The tax cut deal reached by President Obama and Senate Republicans this week includes an extension of tax credits for ethanol --- but another green energy program is not included. Now, supporters of wind and solar energy are lobbying Congress to include an extension of the so-called "Section 1603" grant program in the final tax bill. The program is slated to expire at the end of the month.
The 1603 program converts tax credits for renewable energy projects into up-front grants. Environment Illinois' Max Muller said those grants have helped qualifying companies build 14 new solar, wind energy and fuel cell facilities in Illinois --- resulting in the creation of new jobs at a time of high unemployment.
"Basically, if we don't want to see a precipitous drop in the number of new clean energy projects in Illinois and nationally, we need to extend this program," Muller said.
Among the recipients of 1603 grants in Illinois are nine wind farms, including the Cayuga Ridge Wind Farm in Livingston County near Streator.
Kevin Borgia of the Illinois Wind Energy Association says the grant program provides funding for renewable energy projects at a time when financing is hard to come by, and he said that has led to the creation of new jobs in Illinois.
"I think that the past history with the program is pretty impressive," Borgia said. "And there could be a loss to the Illinois economy if the program does sunset."
In the case of Illinois wind farms, the 1603 grant program has helped only a fraction of the 46 projects that have been built or were slated for construction as of July of this year, according to the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University. Wind farms and other green energy projects will still be eligible for federal tax credits, even after the grant program runs out. But Borgia says the 1603 grants give companies more flexibility when it comes to putting wind farms projects together.
Organizers of Champaign County's quarterly Residential Electronics Collection say they've kept over 220 tons of old computers, microwaves, cell phones, VCR and DVD players, printers, mp3 players, keyboards and other equipment from going to landfills this year. And they hope to collect several more tons at their final collection of the year, set for the morning of Saturday, November 6th.
Susan Monte of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission says a contractor specializing in the recycling of high-tech electronic gear makes sure everything they collect gets re-used.
"They select certain of the functioning items, such as newer model desktop or laptop computers", explains Monte. "They sort those out, and they select those to be refurbished and re-marketed. And the majority of stuff collected, the nonworking electronics waste is dismantled and separated into basic commodities for marketing."
Monte says each event typically attracts about a thousand vehicles, and is organized so that motorists can drive up and drop off their electronics gear, as safely and efficiently as possible.
Monte says the collection event is safe in another way. She says their recycling contractor destroys any data left on old computers --- whether the computers are slated to be refurbished, or just torn down to their basic materials.
"Data wiping software is used on items to be refurbished", says Monte. "And on other electronic waste, hard drives and data storage devices are shredded - physically shredded. That takes care of the data security."
Saturday's Residential Electronics Collection runs from 8 AM to Noon at the News-Gazette Distribution Center,3203 Apollo Drive in Champaign. There's no charge to drop off old electronics gear. Monte says to keep the traffic flowing, motorists should enter from Olympian Drive, east of North Market Street.
The University of Illinois dedicated the Timothy Nugent Residence Hall and the Student Dining and Residential Programs Building on Friday in Champaign. The dormitory and dining hall are both handicap accessible.
The dormitory, which is University Housing's newest residence hall in more than 40 years, features proximity readers and large elevators to accommodate wheel chair bound individuals. The rooms also include technology to help students get in and out of beds and showers.
"This building was planned with the notion that students with disabilities could use each and every part of the building," explained John Collins, director of University Housing.
The new dorm's namesake is Timothy Nugent, who is director of emeritus for the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). Nugent established the center more than 60 years ago. He said society's views of people with disabilities have come a long way.
"I never expected anything this wonderful," Nugent said.
The U of I's commitment to providing accessible facilities for students with disabilities was an important factor for student John Burton, a junior from Indiana studying engineering, when he was deciding where to go to school. Burton, who has spinal muscular atrophy, praised the University for making Nugent Hall an inclusive dormitory for students with and without disabilities.
"It allows you to make friends and meet new people, so that's kind of nice," Burton said. "Although Nugent Hall is the first of its kind, we have the opportunity to lead the way for other universities to follow."
In addition to providing independent living for students with disabilities, the new dining facility will also reduce the university's carbon foot print by using less water and electricity. The dining hall will also use leftover residue oil that is processed from fried foods, and then convert it into bio-fuel for cars and buses on campus.
University president Michael Hogan said the new dining hall is the second green building of its kind at the U of I next to the Business Instructional Facility. Hogan said he predicts the environmental impact of the dining hall will save the U of I money, especially as it looks to trim its budget.
"If you can save your energy cost, you can save a lot of money, so anything that keeps our air conditioning bills down, anything that keeps the lights off when not necessary, anything that reduces our water use," Hogan stated. "That all saves the university money, and of course saves the planet."
The new dining hall is named after former U of I president Stanley Ikenberry, who estimated that the savings generated because of the dining hall's green technology could equate to "several million dollars" within the next 50 years.
"It's not jump change," he said. "It's very important to us."
Hogan said he hopes the U of I considers making more buildings on campus environmentally friendly. The rest of Nugent Hall is currently under construction. An additional 350 beds will be added by the fall of 2012.
Illinois EPA Chief Doug Scott came to Champaign County Wednesday to announce funding for three local projects aimed at cleaning up local air and water.
Scott visited the Champaign-Urbana MTD bus garage to announce a $445,000 Clean Diesel grant --- backed by federal stimulus money --- to retrofit 43 diesel buses with special exhaust filters designed to keep diesel particulate from getting into the outside air.
"They capture about 90 percent of the diesel sub-particulates, and 75-80 percent of the hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide emitted from diesel engines," Scott said. "This will provide more clean air for the employees and also for the public, the staff, the students at the U of I who ride the buses or walk near the bus routes."
The CU-MTD worked with researchers at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences to choose the right filters for their buses and the local climate, as well as setting protocol for installation and maintenance.
While in Urbana, Scott also announced $47 million in federal stimulus and state loans to finance improvements at the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District's Northeast Wastewater Treatment plant in Urbana.
Later, Scott visited the small Champaign County village of Homer, which is receiving more than $10 million dollars in state grants and loans to finance the construction of its first-ever wastewater plant and centralized sewage collection system. The project will replace the individual septic systems currently used by Homer residents and businesses.
During his Urbana stop, Scott also said the Illinois EPA is working to meet a federally imposed deadline for strengthening state regulation of large confined-animal farms, known as confined-animal feeding operations (CAFO).
The federal EPA has given its Illinois counterpart until the end of the month to complete an inventory of the state's CAFO's, overhaul its inspection program and set procedures for investigating citizen complaints.
Scott said his agency has been working on the issue for the last couple of years, and expects to have a "good response" for the federal EPA's demand.
"We take this issue very seriously," Scott said. "We know that these facilities have the potential to cause some large (scale) pollution, and we know that it's important for us to get the best handle we can on that --- both in terms of permitting, but also in terms of enforcement. And that's the steps we have been taking, and what we will continue to do."
A federal EPA report last month found widespread problems with Illinois' oversight of large-scale cattle, hog and chicken operations, and the huge amounts of waste that they produce. The report found state inspection reports that failed to say if a CAFO was following pollution laws or not, and many cases where the state failed to get farms to comply with those laws.
The report also indicated that the Illinois EPA's enforcement powers are too weak. Scott said he will ask state lawmakers next year to give his agency authority that is currently left to the state attorney general.
Communities and companies interested in hosting the CO2 storage site for the FutureGen project now have some details on what they will need to provide.
On Wednesday, the FutureGen Alliance sent out preliminary site selection guidelines for the project. CEO Kenneth Humphreys said this will give potential applicants an idea of the information they will have to provide.
According to the guidelines, the site used to store emissions from the FutureGen coal-fired power plant will need to be able to hold at least 39 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 30 years.
All sites must also utilize the Mount Simon sandstone formation, a formation underlying a large part of Illinois and other Great Lakes states. It is considered a good site for long-term CO2 storage.
The site-selection decision also will consider protection of the environment and public health around the site, how cheaply it can be constructed, and the ability to stay on schedule. Local community support also is crucial.
Mattoon, the original choice to host the FutureGen storage hub, withdrew from the project when it learned it would no longer host the FutureGen power plant. Humphreys said both Mattoon and Tuscola --- a previous FutureGen finalist --- could be viable sites for the storage hub, if they chose to apply.
"I think that should one of the prior sites want to compete in this process, there may be some additional actions they would need to take," said Humphreys. "But they would clearly be competitive, as would many other communities that have raised their hands with an interest."
Humphreys said about two dozen communities and companies have expressed interest in the FutureGen storage hub. Once completed, the facility will hold CO2 piped in from a retro-fitted power plant in the western Illinois town of Meridosia.
Humphreys said a more detailed "Request For Proposals" will come out in a few weeks, and then the applicants will have three weeks to submit their formal proposals. He said they hope to be able to announce a site for CO2 storage in early 2011. Humphreys added that he has heard informally from some two dozen communities and companies that may be interested in applying for the FutureGen storage site.
FutureGen plans to announce the site of the storage space in early 2011.
Two environmental experts will continue to keep tabs on Ameren's efforts to clean up the site of a former manufactured gas plant in Champaign.
About 60 residents from the 5th and Hill Street neighborhood shared their concerns with Bob Bowcock and Mark Zeko in a community forum Monday night. The experts were brought in by New York-based law firms to address long-standing concerns of illness and contaminated soil. Much of the discussion focused on Ameren's efforts to clean the site, and whether the EPA will respond to resident's calls for soil tests at resident's homes. Ameren started its remediation of the site last year, with completion slated for 2015.
Both the experts say the biggest immediate concern is for Champaign's city council to repeal its groundwater ordinance. Zeko, who's a hydrogeologist, said reworking it would allow more flexibility for residents to pursue legal action.
"If there was no ordinance in place, they could leave it like it is," said Zeko. "Right now, basically Ameren can say 'we're complying with the ordinance - leave us alone. If you appeal the ordinance, they can say 'well, our health-based effects show that this is a problem, you need to clean it up.'"
Zeko said Illinois' EPA should require Ameren to do additional testing. Zeko also said new studies are coming out on vapor intrusions of substances like benzine, and their possible health effects. Environmental Investigator Bob Bowcock said Ameren was irresponsible for doing a slow to moderate cleanup after 20 years of the site going unnoticed. He said the groundwater ordinance needs more teeth.
"It's a very generic ordinance, as was stated by the Illinois EPA," said Bowcock. "It's very general. It's been used in 200 jurisdictions throughout the state of Illinois. So it's not site specific, and as technology and science evolves, it's being misapplied."
Champaign City council member Tom Bruno, who spoke at an earlier forum Monday, said repealing the groundwater ordinance might be the only way that Ameren will properly re-mediate the 5th and Hill area.
"It acknowledges the reality that the danger from contaminated groundwater isn't just when you drink the groundwater, but it's dangerous also when you merely breathe the vapors that are coming from that groundwater" said Bruno. "And we need to get rid of that contaminated groundwater whether people are drinking it or not."
Magnolia Cook lives in the 5th and Hill neighborhood. Cook said she has dealt with strange smells and nagging health concerns for about 50 years, so much so that it seems natural.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said the utility company considered all aspects of the environmental impacts at the site of every former manufactured gas plant. He said everything at 5th and Hill is being done within strict accordance of the Illinois EPA, and he added groundwater at the site does not pose a human health or environmental risk. He said the company was not invited to Monday's forums.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
The Ameren Corporation is trying to cut costs and improve service by merging three of its electric and natural gas subsidiaries. The St. Louis-based utility says it will consolidate AmerenIP, AmerenCIPS, and AmerenCILCO into a single public entity known as Ameren Illinois.
"This merger is the logical next step in the evolution of our business in Illinois," said Thomas R. Voss, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ameren Corporation. "For the last several years, we have been moving towards operating our Illinois utilities as one company to reduce the cost of operations and gain efficiencies for our customers.
The parent company will be headquartered in Peoria, and spokesman Leigh Morris said the reorganization will not affect electricity and natural gas rates. Morris added that he expects the merger will lead to greater customer service for approximately 1.2 million customers in the state.
"It's those kind of stream lining things that will go forward, and it's going to allow us to become more efficient," he said. "It's going to allow us to reinforce our commitment to providing safe, reliable energy delivery service."
Ameren Illinois serves all or part of 85 of Illinois' 102 counties and ranks as the second-biggest Illinois electricity delivery operation in terms of total customers. The subsidiary has 813,000 natural gas customers.
While each one of the electric and gas utilities that now make up Ameren Illinois charged different rates, Morris said flat fee will eventually be available to all Ameren customers. However, for now, customers will continue to pay the same rates they were paying before the merger. Customers who want to report an outage or obtain account information can call a toll-free number at 1-800-755-5000.
Federal officials have taken one more step toward making the re-worked FutureGen clean-coal project a reality.
The Department of Energy signed an agreement with Ameren Energy Resources to start design work to retrofit a power plant near Meredosia. Under FutureGen 2.0, carbon dioxide produced from that plant would be piped to a site where it would be stored underground. Mattoon bowed out of the project this summer, leaving the site of that storage facility in question.
Also in question is how much the project could cost Ameren and its customers. Utility spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said Ameren will have to ask state lawmakers for some sort of cost-recovery plan. Gallagher said it was too early to elaborate, saying, "We do have a lot of analysis, review, cost estimates, analyzing commercial viability before we go forward."
Gallagher said the first two phases of the project will have to be completed before any construction work begins and an exact dollar estimate would be in place.
On Tuesday the Energy Department formally committed $1 billion to FutureGen.
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