From a plane, it would be easy to think one of the nation's dirtiest power plants is within the Chicago city limits.
But the aging State Line Power Station, a major contributor to the city's chronically dirty air, sits just a few hundred feet over the state border in Indiana, leaving it largely unnoticed and untouched during a decades-long effort to transform the Chicago area's smog-choked history.
Protesters regularly march in front of two other coal-fired power plants in Pilsen and Little Village, demanding an end to noxious pollution that wafts into the Chicago neighborhoods. Federal and state prosecutors are suing the owner of the plants to force significant cuts in smog- and soot-forming emissions.
Yet a Tribune analysis reveals that the State Line plant, built along Lake Michigan by ComEd in 1929 and bought by Virginia-based Dominion Resources in 2002, is far dirtier than either of the Chicago plants. It emits more lung-damaging nitrogen oxide than the Pilsen and Little Village plants combined, and churns more sulfur dioxide and toxic mercury into the air than either plant.
Only a dozen other coal plants nationwide emit more nitrogen oxide in relation to the amount of electricity generated — a sign of how much less efficient State Line is than bigger, cleaner power plants.
State Line also is a fish killer, one of several old plants around the Great Lakes allowed to suck up millions of gallons of water to cool equipment, then pump it back out steaming hot. Illinois and Indiana banned the technology at newer plants decades ago because it is so destructive to aquatic life.
"It's a highly polluting plant that has existed for years in a sort of never-never land," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
That may be changing. Last year, officials in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago office quietly accused ComEd and Dominion of repeatedly violating federal soot limits and upgrading State Line without installing required pollution controls.
Although President Barack Obama's administration is targeting dirty old coal plants around the nation for aggressive enforcement, it so far has held off filing a lawsuit against State Line, prompting environmental groups recently to nudge the EPA by threatening their own legal action.
Responding to questions, Dominion said it decided earlier this year that it isn't worth cleaning up the company's sooty relic. It plans to keep selling State Line's electricity on the open market until a federal lawsuit or tougher pollution rules make it too costly to keep operating the plant.
"We aren't going to make significant capital expenditures in the future at State Line," said Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman.
Sandwiched between Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyway, the power plant is the first of several big industrial polluters encountered on a drive along the lake's southwestern shore from Illinois to Indiana. The only road into the plant's arched brick entrance begins in Chicago's East Side neighborhood near Calumet Park.
State Line once was the nation's largest power plant. Its latest pair of coal-fired steam turbines, installed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, generate enough electricity for about 100,000 homes.
As environmental laws forced dozens of other coal plants to clean up or shut down, State Line's owners largely avoided the toughest provisions of the federal Clean Air Act and other regulations. Regulators during the 1970s exempted dozens of old plants like State Line after utilities said they wouldn't be running much longer.
Four decades later, complaints about State Line are motivated in part by new research showing that people living in the Chicago area face some of the nation's worst health risks from coal plant pollution, which has been linked to cancer, lung disease and heart problems.
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 EPA and National Academy of Sciences.
Illinois officials have documented that pollution drifting from northwest Indiana is a big contributor to the Chicago area's dirty air problems. While air pollution locally and nationwide is declining, State Line's emissions have remained relatively constant for years.
Federal EPA officials who reviewed monitoring data submitted by Dominion found the plant has violated federal opacity limits dozens of times in the last decade. Measuring the opacity, or darkness, of smokestack emissions enables regulators to gauge whether power plants are emitting unhealthy concentrations of fine pollution particles, commonly known as soot.
"Everybody in the shadow of that plant is breathing black smoke and nobody is doing anything about it," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
Though it is at the end of 103rd Street, the plant's Indiana address has made it impossible for Illinois regulators to target it for enforcement. Indiana officials cited the company for opacity violations in 2002, records show, but have been silent since then.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management "is not involved in litigation concerning State Line Energy currently, nor has IDEM received notice of any suits against the company in which it may choose to intervene," the agency said in a statement.
ComEd and Dominion spokesmen said the companies negotiated last year with EPA officials about the federal complaint against State Line. No talks have been held recently, the spokesmen said.
Susan Hedman, the Obama administration's regional EPA administrator in Chicago, said the agency is aggressively pursuing cases against old coal-fired plants, but faces a significant backlog of investigations that began during Bill Clinton's administration and languished during George W. Bush's administration.
"Excessive emissions of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates will no longer be tolerated," Hedman said in a statement.
Federal and Illinois prosecutors already are cracking down on six coal plants that ComEd sold to Midwest Generation in 1999, including Fisk in the Pilsen neighborhood and Crawford in the Little Village neighborhood, as well as plants in Joliet, Romeoville, Waukegan and downstate Pekin.
A federal lawsuit, joined by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, accuses the companies of modifying and expanding the plants so many times that they should be considered new plants and forced to comply with modern pollution standards. Keeping the aging plants going without cleaning them up violates a provision of the Clean Air Act known as New Source Review, the EPA alleges.
Midwest Generation contends its pollution problems are being addressed under a deal with the Illinois EPA that will lead the company to clean up or close its coal plants by 2018. The federal lawsuit could force the company to upgrade or close its plants faster.
Several new or pending antipollution rules might force Dominion to speed up its decision to shut down the State Line plant. The U.S. EPA's recently proposed Transport Rule, for instance, renews an attempt to reduce pollution in areas around coal plants and in any other state where the plants' sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot emissions hamper air quality.
Dominion also could face a renewed campaign by the EPA to reduce the number of fish killed by old factories and power plants along the Great Lakes and other bodies of water.
Through a process known as "once-through" cooling, the power plant on average sucks in 458 million gallons of Lake Michigan water every day to cool its equipment. Illinois and Indiana banned the process at new power plants in the early 1970s but exempted older ones like State Line.
Drawing so much water kills 32 million fish eggs and larvae each year at the State Line plant, according to a Dominion study. The intense water pressure and high heat also kill 350,000 adult fish annually.
The EPA has proposed rules that would require older plants to install less-destructive equipment such as cooling towers, which act like a car's radiator and consume significantly less water. Enforcement has been delayed by industry lawsuits that contend the plant upgrades would cost too much.
"It's another example of how companies have fought to keep these decrepit old plants running as long as possible, despite their huge air and water pollution problems," said Ann Alexander, a Chicago attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "People assumed these dirty plants would be gone by now. It's time to finally make that happen."
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