Illinois Public Media News
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that Mattoon officials decide by the end of the week whether they want to be part of the revised FutureGen clean-coal project.
Durbin made the demand Monday in a letter to Angela Griffin. She leads the Coles Together economic development group in Coles County. "We need to make sure that we understand exactly what FutureGen 2.0 represents," said Griffin. "We need to make sure that we've considered everthing - that we haven't eliminated something from consideration that's important. We need to consider the immediate impact, and we need to consider the long-term impact. This project as presented has several faces to it, and we need to consider what DOE's (The Department of Energy's) long-term plans are for a carbon storage system in Mattoon." But Griffin says she holds no ill will towards Senator Durbin, who she notes worked for this project and the Mattoon community for years, at a time when many others in Washington turned their backs on it.
Until last week FutureGen included a power plant to be built in Mattoon with carbon dioxide from its coal stored underground. The Department of Energy now wants to retrofit a plant across the state in Meredosia. Mattoon would store carbon dioxide from that plant. The department has said it needs to finalize revisions by Sept. 30 to use $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Durbin says the Department of Energy needs to find a new carbon storage site if Mattoon isn't interested. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says his request to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the changes has been turned down.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to tax gasoline for road improvements will be brought to a vote next week.
She calls the 2-cent a gallon motor fuel tax 'a modest proposal' - contending it's more expensive to not maintain streets than to maintain them. The ordinance also calls for an automatic escalator of point-4 cents per gallon each July for three years, unless the city council suspends it. The idea passed on a 4 to 3 vote by the Urbana City Council Monday night - so a formal vote can be held next Monday. One of three 'no' votes came from Alderman Brandon Bowersox, who says he likes the idea... just not the timing of it.
"I still feel like the economy has people in such a hard place just keeping their families afloat." said Bowersox. "It's a really hard time to implement a new tax. And I guess if it were up to me alone, I'd say let's wait 6 to 12 months, and look at this as part of next year's budget."
The four tenths of a cent escalator was also a concern for Alderwoman Diane Marlin, who says the tax should be limited to road repair. Mayor Prussing says the funds may be targeted for future road projects, like traffic roundabouts.
Alderman and supporter Charlie Smyth says city leaders would identify exactly what projects the tax would be used for. He says starting out slowly, but working up to a tax of 3-point-2 cents after three years... is a good amount of money to start making an impact.
"After that, it just should simply be part of the way we do the rest of our business." said Smyth. "..which is an annual review of all of our fees and permits."
Mayor Prussing says the local fund was necessary since the state motor fuel tax has been constant for 20 years, while the cost of road repairs has more than doubled. She also contends that cities like Danville haven't driven away motorists after enacting the tax. Besides Smyth, others backing the proposal were Robert Lewis, Dennis Roberts, and David Gehrig. Bowersox, Marlin, and Heather Stevenson opposed the plan.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he's 'more than upset' with the Obama administration for what he calls an absolute betrayal of what has been promised for FutureGen.
The Republican says the revamped agreement to make Mattoon a repository for underground storage of carbon emissions, rather than the home to a clean-coal burning plant, shows 'a lack of credibility' from colleagues who had support the original project the last few years. Johnson says he's hoping to set up a meeting with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu next week, with hopes he'll reconsider. "We don't know exactly what the cost is going to be, but it's definable enough that we can go ahead with the project as promised," said Johnson. "As a matter of fact, we just got a letter within the last day or two from I-EPA indicating that they were going full speed with the project. So this came as a complete suprise to us, and it came as a complete surprise to everybody in the delegation apparently with the exception of Senator (Dick) Durbin."
Johnson says the Illinois US Senator had plenty of time to take credit for FutureGen's original plan... but has now become someone he can't count on. The Congressman says Republican colleagues Mark Kirk and John Shimkus are also upset with the revamped plan. Meanwhile, the chairman of the consortium of energy companies supporting the FutureGen project said it was ready to go ahead with the revised plans. Steven Winberg of the FutureGen Alliance says they look forward to "moving the project to the new phase", and working with the Energy Department and officials in Coles County to better understand the new plan's "details and merits".
Illinois' back-to-school sales tax holiday started Friday Through August 15th, shoppers can buy clothing, shoes and school supplies --- priced up to $100 --- without having to pay the state's 5%sales tax.
Susan Hofer of the Illinois Department of Revenue says the chief reason for the tax holiday is to help families during a tight economy.
"Governor Quinn and the General Assembly felt that this year above all, we wanted to do what we could to give parents struggling financially a break on what they have to spend", says Hofer.
The sales tax holiday is also welcomed by retailers, many of which are promoting the temporary tax break in their advertising. But Mark Robyn of the Washington D-C based Tax Foundation says the savings to consumers are modest, in part because some merchants use the tax holidays to mask their own price increases. Robyn says retailers don't gain either, because shoppers just shift their buying to the tax holiday period, instead of buying more. He calls tax holidays a gimmick.
"If a state needs to offer a holiday from their sales tax", said Robyn during a news conference, "it may be a good indication that there are bigger problems with their sales tax."
Robyn's arguments are disputed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which lobbied for the bill creating the sales tax holiday. The group's president, David Vite, says competition will push merchants to cut prices even more.
"I'm aware of some who are going to be having 15-20% additional-off sales", says Vite. "This 5% is the icing. It's the gravy on the very good meal. It's what makes this an important economic stimulus package. It's what makes a great economic package. And retailers are going to take advantage of it by increased sales, not by increased prices."
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association lobbied for the tax holiday. Illinois joins 16 other states with tax holidays, including Missouri and Iowa. Their tax holidays also started Friday, but only run for the weekend, while the Illinois tax holiday runs through August 15th.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden is urging voters to act with integrity after discovering nearly 150 people in the county voted illegally in the fall 2008.
He says there is no good way of checking as to whether some of these voters moved within Champaign County and should have filled out a federal-only ballot, or if they left the county entirely. Shelden's office discovered more than 600 pieces of mail sent to voters in 2008 that were returned as undeliverable.
After some research, it was determined that 146 of them provided a different address when registering than the one they lived at on November 2nd. Shelden contends a lot of these people probably didn't think much about listing the wrong address - but adds that kind of thing could affect an outcome of a race.
"When one group of people plays by the rules and doesn't get to vote on the school sales tax referendum and another group of people doesn't play by the rules and gets to vote on things they shouldn't be able to vote on - that's wrong." said Shelden. "In our society, we know virtually everyone is a law breaker in some fashion... they jaywalk, or they speed a little bit... everyone's got their own level of what they consider a law that they're not willing to violate versus laws that they're willing to violate."
Champaign County's sales tax referendum passed last year. But the totals were close when the item failed in 2008. Shelden says while illegal votes probably aren't a high priority for law enforcement, he has turned information on those 146 residents over to the FBI.
Shelden has written about his office's research in his blog, linked to below.
The FutureGen project has taken a completely new turn -- and the bottom line is that Mattoon will not be hosting a power plant.
Instead, Senator Dick Durbin says the Department of Energy's new plan for the project is to retrofit an existing coal-fired power plant in western Illinois with a process called oxy-combustion. That process is designed to reduce CO2 emissions from the plant - what DOES get emitted would be sent by a brand new pipeline to Mattoon, where it would be stored in the underground facility that was already proposed for that site.
Durbin says Mattoon will still host a major portion of the FutureGen project - just not a freestanding power plant.
"It really made no sense to say we're going to build a power plant to prove what's already being tested in three of four different commercial facilities. That happens when you wait six years," Durbin told reporters Thursday afternoon. "So we tried to pick a technology that had a future, for retrofitting power plants and creating a pipeline that would be of value."
Durbin says the change will reduce the price tag to $1.2 billion, some of it contributed by the alliance of power and coal companies in FutureGen. He says plant retrofitting and pipeline work could begin next spring - the underground pipeline would use existing easements, some of them already containing pipelines.
Senator Durbin also says instead of the plant, Mattoon site would hold a training facility for experts to retrofit many other coal-fired plants across the country over time. But he says funding for that facility has not yet been lined up.
A spokeswoman for an Indiana-based coal company says she wants to set some minds at ease as its officials evaluate land in Champaign and Vermilion Counties for a possible underground mine.
Suzanne Jaworowski with Terre Haute-based Sunrise Coal says the mining technique they would use if they open a coal mine on the Champaign-Vermilion county border would not damage farmland. She says the company plans to use a room-and-pillar approach, which leaves the surface area intact and sustains it by only removing a certain portion of the coal undernearth. Farmers in the affected area south of Homer have been concerned that Sunrise would use what's called 'longwall' mining. Jaworowski says that technique carries the potential for damaging the land by removing large portions of coal at once.
Jaworoski says Sunrise plans to pursue a permit for work that would not result in subsidence or ground sinking as a result of building the underground mine. She says the company will release more information on its plans in the next week.
Sunrise Coal operates a coal mine in Carlisle, Indiana. the company is a subsidiary of Hallador Energy.
On Tuesday night... Champaign County Board members tabled discussion on zoning regulations for the mine. Board members say they first want to research how other counties have handled zoning for coal mines.
Elizabeth Garcia says food stamps allow her to feed her three children.
The Mahomet woman's family is one of the record 780,000 Illinois households who relied on food stamps in June. The state Department of Human Services says the economy is the primary reason more people than ever are using food stamps.
Garcia's family lives mainly on her boyfriend's $540 a month in restaurant wages. She hasn't been able to find work. The 32-year-old says food stamps mean her kids eat healthy food.
But Alana Sykes of Rantoul found out Monday that even her unemployment benefits are too high for her to qualify. Sykes lost her job in state layoffs late last year. And she says those unemployment benefits aren't enough to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
Gov. Pat Quinn has provided new details on his plans to slash state spending, including the decision to cut far more from social services.
The agency that handles Medicaid will lose $216 million, or about 2.7 percent. Last month, Quinn said the agency would be one of the few to actually get more money. The Department of Human Services is being cut by $576 million, or 14 percent. Originally, the department was going to lose just $312 million. Funding for higher education is listed at more than 2.1 billion dollars in 2011, a $105 million dollar decrease. The governor's office says much of that decrease is in the form of federal stimulus money that won't be received next year.
Illinois faces the worst budget deficit in state history, roughly $12 billion. Quinn plans at least $1.4 billion in spending cuts to help reduce the shortfall.
Champaign County Board members will take at least a month to review the prospect of a coal mine located below farmland in the southeast part of the county.
The County Board's Committee of the Whole has asked County Zoning Administrator John Hall to look into what other counties have done to locate and zone mines. Board members tabled discussion on the issue until September. It is still not clear if the county's zoning ordinance would have to be amended, or could block the mine. Terre Haute-based Sunrise Coal has started purchasing mineral rights for locating a mine on Champaign County's border with Vermilion County, in an area south of Homer. County Board member Steve Beckett said doing some homework away from board meetings will let members make some headway on the issue.
"Right now, we have this loosey-goosey collection of anecdotal comments from board members who've had phone calls with people and worried public, etc," said Beckett. "And it's almost as if we're like this little knitting circle, and 'let's all talk about mining and how terrible it is.' I don't find that to be very fruitful and helpful to me as a board member."
Critics of the plan include Vermilion County farmer Charles Goodall. He said he believes the resulting waste water from washing coal on site would leave toxic elements in the soil and groundwater. A resident of Broadlands, Heather Soder, said she wants Sunrise to be more upfront about its plans for waste products in the mine, and its impact on well water.
Soder said she spoke with someone from the company who could not answer her questions. Sunrise has not returned calls to comment.
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