Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Learner Says Closing Chicago Vehicle Emission Testing Sites is a Bad Idea

October 19, 2016
Chicago Will Have No Vehicle Emissions Test Facilities After State Closures
By Robert Duffer

Four vehicle emissions testing facilities, including the last two in the city of Chicago, are being shut down by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 1 to reduce costs and streamline operations.

Closures of the testing stations at 1850 W. Webster Ave. and 6959 W. Forest Preserve Drive leave Chicago motorists without a city testing facility. The nearest locations will be in Skokie, Addison and Bedford Park. The other two locations being closed are in Tinley Park and Elk Grove.

“For the state to decide there will be no inspection in the city of Chicago, in the largest city in the state, third largest city in the country, and expect the same level of quality, it makes no common sense,” said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based environmental advocacy group.

Many Chicagoans, including city officials, were surprised by the closings.

“It’s news to me,” said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“This short-sighted move would place a significant burden on Chicago motor vehicle owners and force them to drive outside the city limits for required environmental tests, exacerbating the problem emissions testing is designed to protect against,” he added.

Read More 

Energy Wire: ELPC’s Brad Klein Talks Updating Interconnection Standards for Solar


October 17, 2016
Midwest States Urged to Update Grid Access Rules Ahead of Growth
By Jeffrey Tomich

When Xcel Energy Inc. began accepting applications for community solar projects in December 2014, the utility and virtually everyone else who worked with regulators to develop rules for the program were stunned by the magnitude of the response.

Within weeks, Minneapolis-based Xcel received requests totaling hundreds of megawatts of shared solar capacity. To date, more than 1,000 applications pending represent more than 1 gigawatt of capacity.

The backlog that accompanied the community solar boom in Xcel’s service area — the product of a 2013 law — not only led to frustration and anger among developers, it served as a cautionary tale for regulators, utilities and solar developers in other states.

While other Midwest states might not see such sudden and dramatic growth, solar advocates believe it’s a matter of when, not if, those markets take off. And when that happens, they want states to have the tools to smoothly handle the increase in projects wanting grid access and not repeat the Minnesota experience.

“That’s exactly the type of situation we’re trying to avoid,” said Brad Klein, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest clean energy advocacy group.

Read the whole story at

DNAinfo: New Midwestern Photo Exhibit Coming To Environmental Law & Policy Center

DNAinfo ChicagoOctober 10, 2016
New Midwestern Photo Exhibit Coming To Environmental Law & Policy Center
By DNAinfo Staff

DOWNTOWN — A six-month exhibition featuring photographs of controlled prairie and woodland burns and of Lake Michigan is coming to the Environmental Law & Policy Center this month.

Debuting Oct. 18, the exhibit titled “Between Fire and Water: Midwestern Dreamscapes” will display photographs from Jane Fulton Alt. The photographer will be present at Oct. 18’s opening reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at 35 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 1600.

“Fire and Water is the outcome of a serendipitous moment, when what was known was reconfigured, creating a field of ambiguity, a new reality, or dreamscape; a reminder of nature’s infinite,” Alt said.

The event is free, but people must register here.

Wort 89.9 FM: The Driftless Area’s proposed ATC line’s affect on Wisconsin Residents

Wort 89.9 FMOctober 10, 2016
By A Public Affair

How will the American Transmission Company’s proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line affect Wisconsin residents? What are the benefits of the new power line? Will rates go up for Wisconsin citizens? This power line is meant to follow a route from northeastern Iowa, on or near the Hickory Creek, and across the Mississippi River, through southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area to the Cardinal substation in Middleton.

Listen to the A Public Affair episode here.

StreetsBlog: The Illiana Tollway is Becoming a “Zombie Highway”

StreetsBlog Chicago

October 10, 2016
Just in Time for Halloween: The Illiana is Becoming a “Zombie Highway”
by Steven Vance

A new filing in the court case against the Illiana Tollway – a proposed 47-mile highway through farmland and nature preserves that would cause exurban sprawl and lead to Illinois jobs being lost to Indiana — indicates that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner may actually be in favor of the project. In recent years it looked like Rauner was making moves to kill the project, but now it appears the Illiana is becoming a so-called “zombie highway” project that just won’t die.

Here’s a rundown of how Rauner previously indicated that he was killing the project. In January 2015, the newly elected governor suspended spending on non-essential capital projects, including the Illiana. In the first week of June 2015, he said the Illinois Department of Transportation would remove the Illiana Tollway from its capital plan.

Two weeks later a federal judge halted the planning of the new tollway by ruling that the required Environmental Impact Statement was invalid because the study used the circular logic that the tollway would be needed because of new housing that would be developed along the corridor… due to the construction of the highway. In September 2015, the U.S. DOT dropped their appeal of the ruling, effectively pulling support for the project.

Now here’s how the state is either keeping the Illiana on life support or else trying to keep the zombie under wraps. In July 2015, Rauner authorized spending $5.5 million to “wind down” the project, and to pay for some litigation fees.

In April this year, the Indiana DOT said that they would pay for rewriting the Environmental Impact Study. However, IDOT spokesman Guy Trigdell said “the approach in Illinois has not changed” and “we are not pursuing the project.”

News last week shows that IDOT currently appears to have a greater involvement in the project than previously stated. The Daily Southtown reported that John Fortmann, an IDOT engineer, filed a statement in federal court that said “IDOT is working cooperatively” with the Indiana DOT to fix the problems with the EIS that made the court rule it invalid.

Continue reading here.

Chicago Tribune: Illinois DOT Moving Forward with Illiana Tollway Project

Chicago Tribune

IDOT Still Moving Forward on Illiana Toll Road

By Susan DeMar Lafferty

October 8, 2016

The Illinois Department of Transportation is teaming up with Indiana to get the Illiana toll road back on track, according to a document filed in court recently.

A statement filed in US District Court Oct. 6 by John Fortmann, an IDOT engineer, said “IDOT is working cooperatively” with the Indiana Department of Transportation to address the environmental issues that caused the court to rule in June, 2015 that the Federal Highway Administration erred in approving the project, because the project’s environmental impact statement was the result of a “faulty” analysis.

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midewin Heritage Association, Openlands, and the Sierra Club, challenging the FHWA’s Record of Decision to approve the project.

The Illiana is a proposed $1.3 billion, 47-mile highway to connect Interstate 55 in Wilmington to Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind., as a truckers’ alternative to Interstate 80.

It was suspended by Gov. Bruce Rauner shortly after he took office in January, 2015, due to the state’s budget crisis.


ELPC Examines Impacts of Proposed ATC Power Line


September 29, 2016

Scientific Scrutiny
By Denise Thornton and Doug Hansmann

Environmental Group Examines Impacts of Proposed ATC Power Line

A Chicago environmental legal advocacy group is scrutinizing the Driftless Area west of Madison and the damage that could be done there with construction of a high-voltage American Transmission Company power line.
The ATC project would carry electricity from Dubuque County, Iowa, to Middleton along 500 steel towers, each one 10 to 15 stories tall.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center has led a number of successful advocacy campaigns designed to protect natural resources throughout the Midwest. In 2003, the group led the effort to get a court order that halted accelerated logging in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, safeguarding 22,000 acres of forestland.
One of the tactics that makes the center successful is its Science Advisory Council. Susan Mudd, the group’s senior policy advocate, says, “Each scientist contributes pro bono advice and connects us with other experts and research that relates to our work.”

One of these experts is Don Waller, a UW-Madison professor of botany and environmental studies. “This Driftless Area Project and the transmission corridor is a new approach,” Waller says. “Instead of just focusing on one issue, we are looking at the range of threats now and in the future for a particular region and how those threats can be addressed in an effective and collaborative way.”


Midwest Energy News: ELPC & Allies Worry Regs for Dynegy’s Toxic Coal Ash Pits Won’t Protect Vermilion River


September 28, 2016

Long-Term Protection of Illinois River from Coal Ash Falls in Regulatory Gray Area
By Kari Lydersen

VERMILION RIVER MIDDLE FORK, ILLINOIS — As a persistent rain pelts the clear, swift Middle Fork of the Vermilion River on a mid-September day, the water swells and rises. Clumps of tree roots hang precariously over the river, exposed by the crumbly, receding banks. Where the bank is firmer, the water has carved out tiny caves.

This is Illinois’s only river to win the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation, and the way the water shapes and gouges the banks is exactly what wild rivers do, changing course and choosing different paths.

But this natural process could create a big problem on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, because the flood plain that was historically the river’s playground contains 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash, stored in pits near a Dynegy coal-fired power plant that closed in 2011.

That proximity creates a potential risk that currently does not appear to be addressed by federal or state regulation.

Advocates are worried that erosion from the river could eventually collapse or puncture the man-made impoundments containing the coal ash, spilling it into a river that is a popular destination for tubing, paddling and fishing and runs through the nearby town of Danville, where a riverfront revitalization is underway.

The ash pits are adjacent to the Kickapoo State Recreation area, where campgrounds and trails were built on the site of a turn-of-the-century coal strip mine. The park’s website touts the “crystal clear ponds” where water filled pits from strip mining and the “luxuriantly forested ridges and hillsides” that are a testament to “the regenerative powers of nature” on 1,290 acres of mined lands purchased in 1939 from United Electric Coal Company.

Studies have shown the river hosts 57 types of fish, 45 types of mammals and 190 types of birds, with 24 of the species listed as threatened or endangered.

Advocates feel all this could be at risk if action is not taken to deal with the coal ash pits. But this issue seems to fall into a regulatory gray area. The coal ash impoundments currently meet state requirements for stability. Federal rules on coal ash storage do not apply to the site. And in general, regulations are unlikely to address future risk from the movement of the river.

So it will take public pressure and political will to drive proactive measures, as advocates see it.

Reinforcing the banks

In October, Dynegy is scheduled to begin constructing 485 feet of new reinforcements to a severely-eroding part of the riverbank outside its ash pits. Advocates see this as a necessary emergency step. But they feel like it only delays inevitable continued erosion, and they are demanding long-term protections – moving the ash to new, lined pits that could be built on Dynegy’s property farther from the river.

“This is a band-aid solution,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer for the Prairie Rivers Network, about the planned fortifications. “We should take this moment to look at what we’re going to do in the long run.”

Dynegy spokesman David Onufer said that with the October work, “the intention is to reestablish the riverbank approximately 30 feet east of where it has eroded…We’ll install rocks, place soil, and transplant native vegetation to secure the new riverbank.”

Onufer continued that “Dynegy sees the Middle Fork Vermilion River as a huge natural asset for the state of Illinois and takes our responsibility for protecting it seriously….Registered professional engineers annually inspect the berms of the Vermilion ponds for structural stability. In addition, Dynegy routinely performs visual checks of site conditions. Riverbank restoration activities will be performed as necessary if significant river bank erosion is observed.”

Dynegy acquired the Vermilion coal-fired plant in 2000 with its purchase of the Illinois Power Company. Since its launch in the 1950s, the plant has stored coal ash onsite. In 2011 the plant closed, a victim of competition from cheaper natural gas-fired power and other factors driving the closing of coal plants nationwide.

Advocates are worried that if Dynegy isn’t forced to make major overhauls at the site in the near-term, it will end up completing its closure responsibilities, selling the land or deeding it to the state, and taxpayers will be on the hook for any future problems.

“With our state budget in the situation it is, why would officials not prioritize a solution that is paid for by the company?” asked Pam Richart, who along with her husband, Lan, ran an environmental consulting firm and then co-founded the advocacy group Eco-Justice Collaborative. “Dynegy knew about this situation when they bought the plant. It’s not a surprise.”

Onufer said the company “will consider selling the property to the state if they are interested in expanding the recreational opportunities in that area.”

Corrective action

Dynegy is currently drafting a Corrective Action Plan resulting from a notice of violation it received from the Illinois EPA in 2012 for polluting groundwater with metals from the coal ash. The plan includes installing caps on the ash pits to prevent rainwater from infiltrating and pushing contaminants down into the groundwater.

“Our timeline is dependent on IEPA approval, so we are in a holding pattern and not legally allowed to implement corrective actions until we hear back,” said Onufer. “The IEPA is currently working on new ash pond closure rules, so it seems unlikely they will act on Dynegy’s proposal until after those new rules are completed.”

Advocates lament the slow process, and also that the corrective action deals only with groundwater, and doesn’t directly address the future stability of the impoundments. They also posit that caps will do nothing to stop groundwater running through the ash pits from the higher natural slopes on the opposite side of the impoundments. And they worry the weight of a cap could even make the impoundments more vulnerable to collapse in the future. The fact that parts of the ash pits are built over former underground mine shafts are also a concern.

Onufer said that there are no wells drawing on groundwater for drinking water within nearly half a mile of the pits, and he said that no adverse effects on the river have been found.

Last year federal rules were adopted – after a long, contentious process – governing the storage of coal ash. But those rules do not apply to closed plants. Illinois is in the process of adopting state rules on coal ash that essentially mirror the federal rules. Advocates are pushing for the state to include a provision covering closed coal plants.

But even if the state adopts rules applying the federal provisions to closed coal plants, it would not necessarily address the concerns about the river threatening the impoundments at Vermilion.

“Without rules [applying to closed sites] there’s this piecemeal process of looking at it,” said Jessica Dexter, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “If you just look at it through the groundwater lens, will that solve the risk to the river? For plants not subject to federal rules, there’s very little in the proposed state rule that would create standards for what they need to do. As to Vermilion, we need a solution that gets the coal ash out of the river’s way.”


Crain’s Detroit Business: Howard Talks About Net Metering in Michigan

Crains Detroit

September 25, 2016

Critics: Proposed Charge Could Pull Plug on Clean Energy Growth

By Jay Greene

A proposed new grid charge leveled at small solar and wind projects in legislation on the Michigan Senate floor could derail growth in the state’s net metering program that incentivizes clean energy produced by homeowners and small businesses.

Despite some changes in Michigan Senate Bills 437 and 438 — primarily sections that govern net metering program rules — businesses in the state’s small solar and wind industry say the proposed bill package could reverse more than eight years of growth in net metering by discouraging investment in small projects.

Under SB 437, the Michigan Public Service Commission would be empowered to set a “fair and equitable grid charge to apply to customers who participated in a net metering or distributed generation program.”

The proposed bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, would likely require the MPSC to hold a contested hearing before an administrative judge who would hear testimony from all sides about a grid charge. The judge would then make a recommendation to the MPSC, which the commission could accept, reject or modify in an order, said MPSC spokeswoman Judy Palnau.

Last week, Nofs distributed draft four of SB 437 S-6 to the Republican caucus. Spokesman Greg Moore told Crain’s that while Nofs wanted to hold a vote on SBs 437 and 438, which is sponsored by Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, a vote on the energy package likely will be held sometime in October.

Mark Hagerty, president of Michigan Solar Solutions in Commerce Township, said his business could be adversely affected if the grid charge was too high and discouraged customers from investing $10,000 to $20,000 in a rooftop solar project.

“If the grid access fee is comparable to what other states have done (about $5 per month), there would be a slight impact,” Hagerty said. “The bill doesn’t put a cap on the fee. If it is high, it could have a substantial impact on net metering and solar.”

While Hagerty said his business is up 40 percent over last year with about 55 projects, several customers have already backed away from rooftop solar installations because of talk of changing the law. He said the vast majority of system installations are solar projects approved for net metering.

“My biggest concern is if I hire somebody, and the state changes its policy, I have to lay them off and deal with unemployment and legacy costs,” said Hagerty, who employs seven and is opening another office in Riverdale. “I hope this bill dies on the vine,” he added.

Officials for Consumers Energy Co. and DTE Energy Co., the state’s two investor-owned utilities, have told Crain’s they favor the grid charge and that the current net metering law creates unfair subsidies that must be paid for by customers who don’t own solar systems.

The utilities, which call net metering a “subsidy,” believe solar and wind customers should pay their fair share to support transmission lines, substations, transformers, meters and other infrastructure costs.

 Slow but Steady Growth

A small but growing number of people and small businesses in Michigan over the past decade have invested thousands of dollars in small solar panel arrays under 20 kilowatts to save money, improve electric grid reliability and cut down on greenhouse gases that contribute to man-made climate change, experts say.

Under Michigan’s 2008 landmark energy bill, Public Act 295, the state mandated a net metering program that gives credits to electric customers whose solar or wind power generating systems produce electric energy in excess of their needs. That electricity contributes to power grid reliability and, in effect, can provide local electricity to neighbors.

Last year, there was a 20 percent increase in net metering in Michigan, said the MPSC’s 2015 net metering and solar program report issued Sept. 12. The MPSC report said net metering increased to 2,155 customers in 2015 from 1,840 customers in 2014.

One reason for the growth is that solar panel costs have dropped 50 percent since 2010. Another reason is the net metering program gives customers credits based on retail rates.

But a grid charge fee, if set too high, could reverse those positive growth trends, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center.


Dodgeville Chronicle Interviews Howard on Driftless Area Work

Dodgeville Chronicle

September 22, 2016

Chicago Environmental Law Group Tours Potential Power Line Routes in Iowa County

By Denise Thornton and Doug Hansmann

On Monday a busload of two dozen Chicagoans toured some of the most scenic spots in Iowa County, but these were no ordinary tourists. They were board members and staff of the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), a major Midwest public interest environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization.

Their route took them along the two proposed corridors for the American Transmission Company (ATC) high voltage power line.

ELPC’s staff of attorneys, policy advocates, finance advisors, communications experts and organizers take on issues concerning climate change, clean energy, clean air, clean water, transportation and special places of environmental interest. It is the last category that brought them to southwest Wisconsin.

Working with the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC), a 15-year old Dodgeville-based land trust that has helped protect 6,000 acres of natural land from development, ELPC opposes the installation of the proposed high-voltage line that would carry electricity between Dubuque County, Iowa and Middleton, Wisconsin, adding about 500 steel towers to the landscape of southwest Wisconsin, each one standing 10 to 15 stories tall. The proposed line is slated to pass through some of Iowa County’s most fragile environments and places of great natural beauty.

The tour began at Brigham County Park looking out over the countryside beyond.

“The Driftless Area is an area where continental glaciers over the past two million years never touched the landscape,” explained David Clutter, executive director of DALC to the tour group.

ATC has proposed two possible routes for the transmission lines, which were marked in blue on the maps handed to the ELPC staff, board members and guests.

“This whole landscape is a very special place, but the transmission lines would come right through,” said Clutter, “either on the north side of Brigham Park or the south side.”

Mark Mittelstadt, a forester and DALC board member added, “We have heard a height of 150 feet for the power lines. The trees are about 75 feet tall, so the transmission towers would be standing well above the top of the woodlands.”

Howard Learner, executive director of ELPC, noted that The Nature Conservancy, a leading global conservation organization, has named the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area (95,000 acres of grassland landscape in Dane and Iowa counties) a priority area to protect because it provides habitat for declining species. With more than 60 prairie remnants, it is one of the highest concentrations of native grasslands left in the Midwest.


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