With the recent announcement that coal-fired power plants in Waukegan and Romeoville would be shut down in 2022, only four Illinois plants that burn coal to generate electricity remain without closing dates. Gov. J. B. Pritzker is bent on phasing out all coal-generated plants by 2035. Good riddance, of course. Coal pollution damages lungs and leaves black soot on the homes, cars, and yards of nearby residents.
I’m feeling wistful, however, as I think of the importance of Commonwealth Edison’s coal-burning Station 9 in Joliet in the first quarter of my life. My family had ComEd to thank for the roof over our heads, the food on our table, and the clothes on our backs. My late father worked at Station 9 for 31 years. His pension and company stocks supported my folks another 38 years after Dad retired, and they still support Mom. The retiree Medicare supplement is excellent. When Dad took the side of ComEd’s parent company Exelon whenever it was in the news for questionable actions, I think he was saying that ComEd had been good to him.
But a benevolent employer isn’t necessarily a good public servant. My memories of growing up with ComEd are mostly about soot. Our house was a mile and a half from Station 9, close enough to be rained on by ash. When Mom hung laundry outside, it dried sprinkled with black specks. If Dad didn’t put the car in the garage, it was flaked with soot that damaged the body. People with gardens found ash in their vegetables.
Did anyone think about what the ash might be doing to their lungs? We weren’t enlightened in our little corner of the world in the ’50s and ’60s, and maybe no one was studying the health effects of coal ash yet. I remember my mother complaining about soiled laundry, but I don’t remember hearing anyone worry about what they were breathing in. Dad developed respiratory problems as he got older, but lung problems run in his family, so it’s hard to be sure of the cause.
By the turn of the 21st century, studies documented the damage that the toxic residue of coal burning, including mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, does to the health of humans. The nonprofit Clean Air Task Force released a report in 2011 that said that every year Station 9 was responsible for 15 deaths, 23 heart attacks, and 250 asthma attacks among residents within a 12-mile radius.
Station 9 was converted to natural gas in 2016 by its now owner, NRG Energy. Even if gas were an acceptable long-term solution, the health and environmental risks from decades of burning coal continue. Coal ash dumps were hardly regulated. The cleanup the state has ordered may take years.
A fifth of US energy still comes from coal, and pushes to eliminate it can fire up emotions. Hillary Clinton was denounced for saying she wanted to put coal companies out of business. Her critics made an issue of job loss, although Clinton explained that she wanted to transition people to cleaner jobs. Donald Trump pandered to his base by wanting to revive the coal industry.
A working-class guy, Dad would have opposed a loss of jobs, but he applauded ComEd’s progression to nuclear energy. He bragged about ComEd’s nuclear plants, which were built after he retired. Nuclear energy isn’t risk free, but it’s clean, and many scientists think that we can’t halt climate change without it.
It was a coincidence that my sister Nancy’s first job out of college was for a consulting company with ComEd as a client. Dad was pleased that Nancy had joined his team. The company’s frequent lobbying for rate increases had soured the public on it. Exelon is hardly looking good these days in light of aggressive lobbying of the state legislature, the bribery scandal, and threats to shut down plants if it doesn’t get its way. Yet criticizing the company feels like biting the hand that feeds you.
ANOTHER TRIBUNE WRITER WHO WILL BE MISSED
Last week I regretted the departure of Chicago Tribune columnists Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, Dahleen Glanton, and Heidi Stevens, who took buyout offers from the newspaper’s new owner, Alden Global Capital. I’ve since found out that Steve Johnson, a stellar writer who covered museums and culture, is also among those leaving. Add to the list architecture critic Blair Kamin and music critic Howard Reich, who left a few months ago.
Sunday’s paper had a final farewell from Zorn, who asked us readers to “stay with my beloved Chicago Tribune through these changes.” I will, although everyone I read for their writing as well as the content will be gone.