Cleaner air coming near three of Iowa's largest coal-fired power plants

MidAmerican Energy has agreed to reduce coal emissions at one of its Iowa power plants by the end of 2014 and to phase out seven coal-fired boilers at three Iowa power plants by April 2016, thanks to legal action by the Sierra Club. The settlement announced yesterday means that in future years, fewer people near or downwind of the plants in Council Bluffs, Bettendorf, or Sergeant Bluff will suffer the “devastating impacts of coal on the human body.”

Follow me after the jump for details on this very big news for Iowa air quality.

Coal combustion causes thousands of preventable deaths every year as well as chronic illnesses of the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. MidAmerican operates many of Iowa’s largest coal-fired power plants, some of which were violating terms of their air permits. Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, spoke to Radio Iowa yesterday.

“A year ago, we notified MidAmerican that we believed (the company) was violating the Clean Air Act and emitting illegal amounts of pollution out of three of its coal fired power plants,” Nilles says. “To their credit, they were willing to sit down and work out an agreement that phases out these (boilers) and increases investments in clean energy.”

The agreement filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Iowa states MidAmerican – by April 2016 – will phase out coal burning in two boilers at the Neal Energy Center North in Sergeant Bluff, two more boilers at the Walter Scott, Jr. Energy Center in Council Bluffs and all three boilers at the Riverside Generating Station in Bettendorf. MidAmerican must also complete a project to cut emissions from two other coal burning units in the Sergeant Bluff plant by the end of 2014.

You can read the whole consent decree here. MidAmerican will also build a solar power installation at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Radio Iowa quoted MidAmerican spokeswoman Tina Potthoff as saying the Bettendorf facility will be converted to natural gas, and MidAmerican is still evaluating its options to replace the boilers that will be retired in Council Bluffs and Sergeant Bluff. She added, “We do not anticipate any forced reductions to labor as a result of this [settlement].”

MidAmerican’s power plants in Council Bluffs and Sergeant Bluff have been the largest greenhouse gas emitters in Iowa, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a statement, the investor-owned utility denied wrongdoing.

“MidAmerican Energy has been and remains in compliance with the law,” the company said, adding that Iowa authorities had not pursued any enforcement actions against any of its plants.

“MidAmerican Energy entered into settlement discussions as a means to avoid costs to its customers, unnecessary delays, and ongoing uncertainty associated with litigation,” it said.

Here’s the Sierra Club’s press release of January 22:

Settlement Between The Sierra Club and MidAmerican Energy Brings Clean Air Victory to Iowans

Retirement of Seven Coal-Fired Boilers Marks 50,000 Megawatts of U.S. Coal Announced to Retire Since 2010

DES MOINES, IA – Today, the Sierra Club and MidAmerican Energy Company announced a landmark settlement that requires the Iowa utility to phase out coal burning at seven coal-fired boilers, clean up another two coal-fired boilers and build a large solar installation at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.  The announcement also pushes the total amount of coal generation retired or announced to retire since 2010 to over 50,000 megawatts, almost one-sixth of the nation’s coal fleet.

In 2012, the Sierra Club notified MidAmerican that it was violating the federal Clean Air Act at its Walter Scott, Riverside and George Neal coal plants, by emitting more pollution than allowed by its permits. Today’s settlement filed in federal court in Iowa resolves those allegations. According to the Clean Air Task Force, air pollution from these three plants contributes to 45 deaths and 760 asthma attacks annually.

“Clean air, clean water and a booming clean energy economy are part of an Iowa legacy that I am proud to leave for my children and grandchildren,” said Pam Mackey Taylor, Chapter Energy Chair of the Sierra Club in Iowa. “Coal’s days are numbered here in Iowa. Pollution from MidAmerican’s coal-fired power plants causes major health problems in communities across Iowa. Retiring units at these coal plants and installing vital pollution controls at the remaining units will help Iowans breathe easier.”

The settlement between Sierra Club and MidAmerican Energy further cements Iowa’s position as a national clean energy leader. Iowa passed the first renewable energy standard in the country in 1983, decades before most states even considered similar standards. Iowa now ranks third in the nation in installed wind capacity, draws 22 percent of its electricity from wind energy and is a hub of wind component manufacturing in the Midwest. The wind industry employs 7,000 workers in Iowa, more than any other state.  

“Big carbon pollution emitters like MidAmerican’s coal-fired power plants are contributing to the climate disruption causing this year’s historic drought across the Midwest,” said Bruce Nilles, Senior Director of the Beyond Coal campaign. “If we want to ensure that droughts do not become the new normal for Iowa, other utilities must follow suit to phase out coal imported from Wyoming and push Iowa’s strong home-grown clean energy development forward.”

Today’s announcement brings the total number of coal plants retired or announced to retire since 2010 to 130 plants and 50,717 megawatts, almost one sixth of the nation’s entire coal fleet. In 2009 these coal plants emitted more than 188 million metric tons of carbon pollution the equivalent annual emissions of more than 39 million passenger vehicles. These plants also emitted more than 7,600 pounds of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, and caused 6,000 heart attacks, 60,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature lives annually.

Meanwhile, as coal plants are retired and only one new coal plant has broken ground since November 2008, the United States is also installing record amounts of clean energy.  During President’s Obama’s first term the nation doubled its installations of wind and solar, and in 2012 the US installed more wind and solar than coal, gas or nuclear power, with both wind and solar having their best year ever.  In mid-2012 the United States hit the milestone of 50,000 megawatts of wind generation installed, producing enough electricity for 13 million American homes.

“This is great news for the people of Iowa and another important victory for the Beyond Coal campaign. The retirement of these plants means our campaign has achieved an important milestone: we have helped retire more than 50,000 megawatts of coal power, while also bringing online more than 50,000 megawatts of wind energy. Iowans are joining a growing number of citizens around the country who are helping to end our nation’s dependency on coal and move the U.S. toward a cleaner energy future,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies has contributed $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Tapping into the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters, its Beyond Coal campaign is working across the United States to end coal burning no later than 2030, replace coal-fired power plants with clean energy like wind and solar power, and keep the massive U.S. coal reserves underground and out of world markets. It is the largest campaign in the organization’s 114-year history, and employs more than 170 staff members who collaborate with thousands of activists and more than a hundred allied organizations nationwide.  With a relentless focus on moving the country off of coal fired power, the campaign is engaged in more than a hundred venues, including the courts, regulatory agencies and in communities where decisions about coal mining and coal use are being debated. This includes working with workers and communities to help them transition to clean energy jobs when local coal plants are retired.

The settlement can be viewed here.

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