Incinerate this, Governor
August 25th, 2011
Make the backers prove that this last-minute bill wouldn't worsen air pollution in Illinois
Something we all can agree on: Air pollution is harmful, and we ought to diminish it wherever possible.
Something else: It's better to safely recycle municipal waste than to bury it in ever-growing landfills.
Something people can't agree on: Does a bill now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature do more harm than good when it comes to air pollution and recycling? Depends on whom you ask.
Let's back up for a moment. To understand the risks here, you need a short primer on - sorry - waste management:
Some municipal solid waste currently is mined for recyclables, with the remainder compacted and sent to a landfill. But a company called Indiana Recycling and Renewable Fuels wants to grind up some of that remaining waste and create a solid fuel pellet and an oil to be burned, mostly in coal-fired power plants.
Right now, Illinois law treats those pellets and oil as waste, not as fuel.
That's key: Illinois law protects communities from the burning of municipal solid waste in incinerators because it can generate toxic substances like dioxins.
Representatives of Indiana Recycling say the pellets and oil they want to produce in Illinois would emit less pollution than coal when burned, so those electrical generation plants would burn cleaner. They want Quinn to sign the bill, which would adopt a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule that appears to include these pellets and oil in its definition of fuel - and not as waste.
Not so fast, says the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) of Chicago. Advocates there say the federal EPA standards are too vague and Indiana Recycling hasn't proved that burning the pellets will be cleaner than the fuels those plants are currently burning.
The essential question: Is burning pellets and oil made from municipal waste the same as … burning municipal waste?
The bill "is an end run around the stricter emission limits regulating waste incinerators," says Melville Nickerson, staff attorney at the ELPC. "It puts us on track to burn municipal waste and to thwart the more stringent standards for municipal waste incineration in Illinois."
Suffice to say, we're giving you the CliffsNotes version of this controversy. The complexity here is so dense that even a major sponsor of this bill, Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, tells us that she's flummoxed by all the controversy that has arisen since lawmakers sent this legislation to Quinn.
"When we passed the bill, it was totally under the guise of it would be beneficial to municipalities to figure out what to do with waste, so it wouldn't all go to landfill …," she says. "But I don't want to jump if we don't have technology in place. We've got to make sure all the information we got was correct. We relied on the Illinois EPA, and other groups to sign off before it passed."
Hmmm. A bill that cleared the General Assembly at the end of the last legislative session. Fresh doubts raised. Sponsor going wobbly. Conflicting claims about the benefits or harm.
The stakes are high: Uncounted thousands of people risk breathing whatever the burning of these pellets and this oil would produce.
Ideally, all of the questions that now are gaining altitude would have been resolved before legislators passed the bill.
So now it's all up to Quinn.
Governor, you can sign the bill and take a chance that it works out for the best. Surely the backers of this legislation are desperate to convince you it plays into your current strategy of claiming that every move you make provides jobs, jobs, jobs for Illinois.
Or you can do what's right and responsible: Veto this bill, and send the sponsors and everyone else back to get their arguments and evidence straight. ELPC suggests a task force with industry experts, environmentalists and regulators to reach a consensus.
If this bill turns out to be a good idea, legislators can pass it again. If, though, this turns out to be a dangerous idea, Governor, you can correctly say you protected Illinois communities from breathing toxins.
We all favor reducing air pollution. Let's make sure this bill does that before it sails through the Legislature again.