About 60 Batavia and Geneva residents concerned about their cities' investment in a Southern Illinois coal mine gathered Tuesday night in a church basement to brainstorm ideas on how to call attention to what they consider is a rotten deal for their communities.
Many in the crowd pledged to write letters, sign petitions and call on their aldermen to ask Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan for an investigation into the Prairie State Energy Project and the actions that led a company formed by Peabody Energy to convince dozens of Midwestern communities to buy power from the plant.
The meeting, held at the Unitartian Universalist Society in Geneva, was sponsored by the Sierra Club of Fox Valley. Members of the club, the church and other local residents cited everything from distress over rising electric bills to concern about how the long-term deal was struck to worries over the coal mine's consequences on the next generation.
"I don't think our cities did anything bad," said Betsy Zinser, a Batavia resident who has spent years researching Prairie State. "I think they got snookered."
Batavia and Geneva are just two of the many municipalities throughout the Midwest that locked themselves into 28-year contracts to purchase power from a company formed by Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal company. The project was pitched as a way to provide affordable, reliable energy.
Years later, the cities are on the hook to purchase power at much higher rates than projected, and to pay the higher-than-anticipated costs to build the mine.
Batavia and Geneva, along with Rochelle, belong to the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency, which has a 7.6 percent share of Prairie State. Peabody Energy retained a 5 percent share in the project.
Zinser presented information showing there were warning signs from industry forecasters that the projections were unrealistic.
Batavia aldermen Marty Callahan, Steve Vasilion and Dan Chanzit were on hand for the first part of the meeting, with Vasilion telling the crowd that he thinks voters elected him because they wanted him to do something about the contract.
"My children will be my age when we get out this," Callahan told the crowd.
Batavia city officials have been upfront that they regret the Prairie State decision. In March, the council raised the sales tax and electric rates to keep the electric fund afloat. Aldermen have also used $2 million in reserves to keep rates down, and authorized using another $2 million this week.
In Geneva, resident Bill Scown said that officials have been largely silent about the Prairie State issue and told him that it's a long-term contract that could still save money down for the road.
Zinser told the crowd that many of the area's elected state officials had sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the city of Batavia earlier Tuesday asking to see the contracts between the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency and Prairie State.
A spokeswoman for Peabody late Thursday said questions about the matter should be directed to Prairie State and added Peabody has no contracts with municipalities.
State Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, has also called on Madigan to investigate Prairie State.