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Chicago’s Environmental History: Waterways, Energy, And Corporate Obstinance

May 8, 2007

Embedded in a recent Chicago Tribune story, titled “Utility’s bottom line: Killing fish a positive,” is a great deal of regional environmental history.

Authored by Michael Hawthorne, the piece’s primary focus is the obstinance of a Chicago-land company called Midwest Generation. Midwest Generation refuses to upgrade its facilities in order to cool wastewater pumped into the Chicago and lower Des Plaines rivers. The company doesn’t to acknowledge, in sum, that Chicago is no longer an industrial city that will tolerate wanton environmental degradation.

Why am I highlighting this at H&E? Aside from being related to my present environs, I own a longstanding interest in environmental issues both present and historical. Before realizing my passion for U.S. history, I worked for more than two and a half years as an Environmental Specialist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Hazardous Waste Program. In that capacity I investigated Former Manufactured Gas Plants (FMGPs), as well as wastes from other historical industries in Missouri. I gained my understanding of FMGPs under the tutelage of a lovable, eccentric geologist and former professor, Allen Hatheway. Hatheway still works on the subject, and some of that effort is evident at his website.

As a Loyola University Chicago graduate student I came close to making environmental history a part of my doctoral dissertation. I wrote a paper on MGPs in Chicago in a seminar with Harold Platt. I thoroughly enjoyed the project and paper – and Platt would’ve made an excellent mentor in the field. Eventually, however, I realized the fruitfulness of the great books idea, and made that my focus. In terms of picking a subject that had the best chances of holding my interest for a lifetime, intellectual history superseded environmental history for me. That said, I’ve never lost my sincere interest in environmental issues and history.

What follows is Hawthorne’s article interspersed with my commentary:

– “Faced with the prospect of a multimillion-dollar tab to help revive Chicago-area rivers, the owner of four coal-fired power plants is pushing a plan that would keep the urban waterways too hot for fish to survive.”

TL: This tact has an anachronistic feel. It was an attitude, or line of thinking, more typical of the U.S. companies in the 1980s and 1990s than today.

– “The aging Midwest Generation plants suck up nearly every drop of the Chicago and Lower Des Plaines Rivers to cool their massive equipment, then churn it back out as hot as bathwater, sometimes hotter than 100 degrees. Illinois has banned the process at newer plants because it can kill fish or discourage them from sticking around.”

TL: Midwest Generation has been grandfathered as an exception to the current rules – a provision common in many environmental laws, but generally not publicized nor known by the common citizen.

– “State regulators are proposing new temperature limits that could force the utility to spend up to $800 million on equipment upgrades, which would curb the amount of warm water pumped into the waterways.”

TL: The State of Illinois is apparently simply trying to close the grandfather loophole.

– “But the power company’s executives contend there are more benefits than drawbacks from keeping the rivers hotter than normal. They even suggest that killing all of the fish in the rivers might be a good thing.”

TL: This is a typical tactic of the defense. The company tries to argue that their waste is really a type of augmentation that contributes to the greater good. And of course it defies the common person’s common sense meter: if nature wanted the water scalding hot, wouldn’t it be that way in the first place?

– “The debate reflects changing attitudes about waterways that for decades have been seen as little more than industrialized sewage canals linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. Once considered off-limits to humans and wildlife alike, the rivers are the cleanest they’ve been in years.”

TL: This is very true. For instance, residents now kayak the Chicago River, and some types of fish caught from the river are, I believe, edible. This is far removed from the scenes described by Upton Sinclair and more recently recounted by environmental historian William Cronon in his Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

– “But federal, state and local officials say improvements in water quality might not be good enough. Cooler water, for instance, could help make the rivers more habitable for game fish such as walleye, perch and sauger. ‘The conflict we’re seeing now reflects dramatic differences about how these rivers should be used as we go forward,’ said Toby Frevert, water quality manager for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.”

TL: I don’t understand how temperature, heretofore, was not considered an aspect of water quality. Hmm…

– “Executives at Midwest Generation, the California-based utility that bought the plants from ComEd in 1999, said the potential river improvements would be too expensive.”

TL: Crybabies. Boo! Hiss!

– “During a recent presentation to environmental regulators, [Midwest] argued that the government should give up trying to improve water quality, illustrating their point with slides showing tons of slimy garbage skimmed off intake pipes at the power plants.”

TL: Yes, but that garbage is physical. That kind of garbage doesn’t strictly change the basic, natural status of the system (i.e. PH, temperature) nor interfere with the basic functions of wildlife survival (as does an oil slick). Of course garbage is a problem, but it’s effects of local, not systemwide.

– “Instead of making the rivers more habitable, [Midwest Generation] said, the dredged and straightened channels should be kept hot. They contend that could help prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from crossing between two of the nation’s major waterways. ‘Why should we make it easier for other species to make it through?’ said Bill Constantelos, Midwest Generation’s director of environmental policy. ‘These rivers were designed for barge traffic. To say they’re going to become quality fisheries is more than a stretch.’ The utility’s argument is ludicrous, several fish experts said. Asian carp in particular are drawn to warmer conditions.”

TL: Oh brother. Trotting out “the Asian carp defense” should only be allowed in the courts if the company actually researched this from the start of concerns about Asian carp. And besides, as the fish experts pointed out, that breed of fish likes warm water! Finally, arguing that environmental concerns were not an issue when the rivers were modified, so they therefore shouldn’t matter now, is absurd. That line of thinking could be used in EVERY SINGLE SITUATION where pollution has occurred. Does that mean we shouldn’t have cleaned up Times Beach or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal?

– “Questions about water temperature are the latest wrinkle in a long-standing debate about the future of the two rivers. More than a century has passed since the region’s leaders blasted through the natural divide between the Chicago and the Des Plaines. Linking the two waterways opened an important trade route for barges loaded with grain, coal and other goods to cross between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The elaborate construction project also reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan, an engineering feat that separated the city’s drinking water from its sewage.”
– “Most of the water in the river still is treated human and industrial waste that flows into the Lower Des Plaines at Lockport. But people steadily are returning to the waterways for recreation, encouraged by improvements in sewage treatment and flood control that have made the canals less fetid and more pleasant. The water is clean enough that 60 species of fish can be found in some stretches, compared with five in 1970.”

TL: Did you catch that: 60 species of fish now, 5 in 1970. And more could be there if not for the water temperature fluctuations!

– “The four power plants along the Chicago and Lower Des Plaines were built long before burning rivers and open sewers across the nation moved Congress to approve the Clean Water Act and other modern environmental laws. At each of the plants, water pulled from the rivers is circulated through tubes that re-condense steam that drives the electric generators. Newer plants rely on cooling towers that recycle most of the water, drawing only small amounts to make up for what’s lost through evaporation.”
– “In Chicago, the Fisk plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village on average draw a combined 760 million gallons every day, according to an Illinois EPA report. Two other plants farther downstream suck up even more water. The Will County plant in Romeoville draws 945 million gallons a day, and the Joliet plant pumps 1.4 billion gallons daily.”

TL: Those are amazing amounts of water: 3.105 billion gallons a day – and just for cooling.

– “Illinois banned the procedure, known as ‘once-through cooling,’ at new power plants in the early 1970s after scientists documented devastating effects on fish and other aquatic life. But older plants like the ones owned by Midwest Generation weren’t affected. ‘More fish should be there but aren’t because of the heat from those power plants,’ said Peter Howe, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biologist who has studied the rivers for years. ‘Those temperatures are lethal.’ “

TL: Again, 60 species are there now, but more could exist.

– “Under the state’s proposed new standards, the required water temperature would vary depending on the time of year.During May 2006, water sucked into the Will County plant was as warm as 77 degrees and came back out as hot as 93 degrees, according to the EPA. The maximum allowable river temperature during May would be 77.3 degrees if the agency’s proposal is approved by a state rulemaking board. Summer river temperatures also would need to drop. In August 2005, the Crawford plant on average drew 88 degree water and pumped it back as hot as 105.5 degrees. The limit would be 91.9 degrees.”

TL: The new limits seem reasonable.

– “Midwest Generation executives complained that state environmental regulators are mulling tougher water standards a few months after the utility cut a deal to install new air-pollution controls. ‘The potential cost to us is staggering,’ said Doug McFarlan, a company spokesman. Illinois ratepayers wouldn’t absorb Midwest Generation’s costs because the company sells electricity on the open market, rather than to a defined service area like ComEd.”

TL: So, let me get this straight. Right now Midwest Generation uses the water for free and sells its product (energy) on the open market (not even at discount to Illinois residents?!), but doesn’t want to pay for the damage its causing (i.e. 60 species of fish survive now, but an untold/unknown number could survive if not for too hot water). Shouldn’t Midwest be sent a hypothetical bill by the Illinois EPA for the fish “killed” daily (or prevented from living) that could be sold by an unknown, potential fish vendor?

– “Few if any scientists think keeping the rivers hotter than normal would effectively deter invasive species from swimming through the waterways. . . . When a panel of experts studied ways to protect the Great Lakes fishing industry from invasive species, they looked at intense heat as one option. They concluded that the most effective method, other than separating the two water systems again, was an electrical barrier near Romeoville.”
– ” ‘There’s just no way to guarantee you could keep the water hot enough all the time to make a difference,’ said Mike Conlin, director of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. ‘Besides, we want to keep improving water quality. We shouldn’t be going backwards.’ “

TL: Touche, Monsieur Conlin! But, again, why was water temperature ever excluded from water quality measurements when the Clean Water Act was instituted? Of course the answer is special interests (i.e. business) and grandfathering.

Let’s keep correcting these loopholes. Until they’re all closed, Chicago – as a metropolitan area – will never reach its goal of being a “sustainable” area (p. 2).

And these closed loopholes will have a trickle down effect. An improved environment in the Chicago-land area will raise the ecological quality of downstate Illinois and the Great Lakes region in general. – TL

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