The construction permits are in and the financing is ready to go, but some of the Chicago area's biggest sources of toxic air pollution still might not be cleaned up anytime soon.
In recently filed documents, Midwest Generation signaled it might delay installing pollution controls at its six coal-fired power plants "for the maximum time available," making it more likely the aging units will keep churning out high levels of lung- and heart-damaging soot for most of the decade.
Securities and Exchange Commission, convey a starkly different message from public statements by Midwest Generation executives, who have pledged to make "meaningful improvements in the environmental performance of our plants."
With Republican lawmakers in Washington seeking to block tougher pollution limits proposed by the Obama administration, Midwest Generation now appears to be hedging on its next steps.
Late last year, the company secured state permits to install pollution-control equipment that would reduce soot- and smog-forming emissions from its power plants. But whether it actually makes the $1.2 billion investment depends in part on "regulatory and legislative developments," according to its latest financial documents.
"It's time for Midwest Generation to become a responsible corporate citizen," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "It appears the company has decided it costs less to lobby politicians than to invest in modern pollution controls to clean up its facilities."
What happens next could dramatically affect efforts to clean Chicago's chronically dirty air.
The company's six coal plants — in Chicago's Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods, Joliet, Romeoville, Waukegan and downstate Pekin — are among the region's biggest sources of smog- and soot-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. They also are some of the top sources of toxic mercury that contaminates fish in the Great Lakes and other waterways.
Doug McFarlan, a company spokesman, said Midwest Generation still is committed to an agreement with state regulators that calls for each of its plants to be cleaned up or shut down by 2018. The company is holding off on firm decisions until the federal EPA completes work on various anti-pollution regulations, he said.
"We want to integrate all of these rules before making our investment decisions," McFarlan said. "I don't consider that a contradiction from our public statements."
In the metropolitan region that stretches around Lake Michigan from Kenosha to Naperville to Gary, 347 people die, 584 suffer heart attacks and 264 are admitted to emergency rooms each year as a result of exposure to coal-plant pollution, according to an analysis commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group.
Only New York and Philadelphia record more deaths and illnesses from coal-plant pollution, the group concluded after relying on peer-reviewed methods endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Academy of Sciences.
A separate study conducted last year by the academy, the nation's leading scientific advisory body, estimated that Midwest Generation's Chicago-area plants cost neighboring communities at least $402 million a year in hidden health damages.
The company has commissioned its own pollution studies, one of which concluded that inhaling soot from the Little Village and Pilsen plants during an entire year is equivalent to what people are exposed to by mowing their lawns twice a year.
Targeted by neighborhood activists, environmental groups and a handful of Chicago aldermen, Midwest Generation also is fighting an Obama administration lawsuit that accuses the company of illegally upgrading the power plants to keep them operating without installing pollution controls required under the Clean Air Act.
"This just proves what we've been saying all along: Unless they're required to do something, they aren't going to clean up," said Jerry Mead-Lucero, an activist with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, which has helped mobilize protests against the Pilsen and Little Village plants.
Midwest Generation and other power companies across the nation have been saying they expect more stringent air pollution regulations, prompted by science that shows soot and smog are more dangerous than previously thought. At the same time, the industry's political allies in Congress are moving to block or delay those regulations from taking effect.
Industry representatives predict it ultimately could become too expensive to keep operating the oldest, dirtiest and most inefficient coal plants, many of which date to the 1940s and '50s.
Midwest Generation recently got permits to upgrade a unit at the Waukegan plant, one of the first it agreed to address. But in its latest financial documents, the company said it "has not made a final decision as to whether the project will be undertaken."
Elsewhere, Virginia-based Dominion Resources, owner of the State Line Generating Station along Lake Michigan in Hammond, told the Tribune last year that it did not plan to clean up that sooty relic. The company plans to keep selling electricity from the plant until a federal lawsuit or tougher anti-pollution rules make it too costly to operate.
Another power company, Houston-based Dynegy, announced this month that it is scuttling its Vermilion Power Station outside downstate Danville, citing rising operating costs.
Illinois gets about half its electricity from coal and generates far more energy than it needs. As some of the state's oldest coal units are retired, state law is requiring greater dependence on wind and other renewable sources that don't emit pollution.