Across the U.S., dozens of coal-fired power plants, many of them decades old, will be going dark in coming years. Now, environmental groups, city planners, elected officials and local residents are turning their attention from the health and environmental impacts of the plants’ emissions to the future of these sites.
Unlike larger, newer coal plants often built in relatively unpopulated areas, many of the old plants slated for retirement are located in or near dense urban areas, including two plants in the heart of Chicago, two in Cleveland and one on the Potomac River near the nation’s capital.
A list of 106 coal plants with anticipated closings announced since 2010, compiled by the Sierra Club, includes 41 Midwestern plants representing more than 4,300 megawatts in Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. The list ranges from tiny plants at the University of Wisconsin and a Wisconsin correctional center, to GenOn’s massive Avon Lake station on the shores of Lake Erie near Cleveland.
The closings mean many people have both hopes and fears about the sites in their midst. Especially for plants on the shores of lakes or rivers or in city neighborhoods lacking green space, there’s much talk of converting the plants to parks or other public spaces. Environmentalists and clean energy boosters have suggested small-scale wind, solar or biomass electricity generation on the sites, to take advantage of existing transmission infrastructure and to make a symbolic statement about converting the old energy economy to the new.
History buffs and preservationists have called for preserving impressive century-old structures or creating small museums. In Chicago, the site of the Fisk Generating Station on the Chicago River has even been targeted by planners and advocates as the ideal spot for infrastructure to block Asian carp and other invasive aquatic species from migrating up the river to Lake Michigan.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this month announced that an advisory committee, including three community members, will be formed to assess the future of the Fisk plant, owned by Midwest Generation, and the Sierra Club and Joyce Foundation will contribute funds for the process.
The Sierra Club and Joyce Foundation, as well as the ELPC and NRDC (mentioned later in this story) are members of RE-AMP, which also funds Midwest Energy News.
But the Fisk plant is so far an exception; there are few clear plans for many other closing plants despite the lively speculation about new uses. Representatives of three major companies closing plants – Dominion,FirstEnergy and GenOn – said they don’t have any near-term plans for redeveloping or selling the sites or turning them over to government agencies or non-profit groups.
This uncertainty stokes fears that the sites will sit indefinitely as unused, fenced-off brownfields, which some environmental leaders and neighbors worry could contaminate groundwater or nearby water bodies including the Great Lakes.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center has called for an independent engineering assessment of the site of the State Line Power Plant in Hammond, Ind., which has operated for 83 years directly on the edge of Lake Michigan just across the border from Chicago. ELPC executive director Howard Learner said independent assessments should be standard practice at closing coal plants, so that any needed remediation can be identified and undertaken promptly.
“The time for assessing whether there’s any contamination on a site is now, not years later,” he said.
Learner added that if sites are owned by or later transferred to limited liability subsidiaries or companies that end up going bankrupt, and contamination needing expensive remediation is later found, “the public could be left holding a bag with a lump of coal that has very high costs for cleanup.”
There is no evidence that there are serious environmental problems posed by the sites of shuttered coal plants, and environmental leaders emphasize that it is the uncertainty, not any confirmed hazards, that most concern them. They raise the possibility of lead and other heavy metals and contaminants accumulating in the soil from the plants’ air emissions over many decades; and also small-scale dumping or spilling of industrial products that may have happened over many years of operation.
Once plants are closed the sites remain subject to state and federal environmental regulation. But the owners would not continue to report releases or seek permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act once the plants are not active. Leaching or runoff from sites would be subject to the Clean Water Act, but there will typically be no legal requirements for monitoring, so water contamination could easily occur without being discovered. Some plants might store hazardous waste after closing, in which case they would be subject to requirements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).