SPRINGFIELD -- Ameren Corp. will get more time to meet tougher state pollution-control rules that company executives claimed would have cost hundreds of jobs at downstate power plants.

SPRINGFIELD -- Ameren Corp. will get more time to meet tougher state pollution-control rules that company executives claimed would have cost hundreds of jobs at downstate power plants.


The Illinois Pollution Control Board, meeting in Chicago, voted 4-0 to grant the company’s request for a five-year delay, to 2020, of new standards for sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants.


Ameren said the ruling would preserve jobs while still cutting emissions. Environmental groups portrayed the decision as caving to polluters at the expense of clean air and health.


More than 2,000 public comments — from environmentalists, labor unions, health care organizations, individuals and, state and local elected officials — were filed with the board


Board members agreed with Ameren’s contention that it could no longer afford to meet the original 2015 deadline as a result of low energy prices, the slow economy and uncertainty over federal air-pollution rules.


S02 reductions


The board also pointed out Ameren would continue to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by upgrading remaining power plants and by keeping the Meredosia and Hutsonville stations closed, though not at the same pace as promised earlier.


“The board finds this compliance plan is satisfactory, as it results in overall reduction of SO2 emissions from 2012 through 2020, and provides a net benefit to Illinois air quality,” the board said in its 70-page ruling.


Ameren released a statement saying the decision appeared to grant most of the company’s request.


“This decision is critical to our employees and the local communities surrounding our energy centers,” the statement said.


Ameren executives had said the company needed additional time to upgrade its Newton, Joppa and Bartonville stations, or one or two would have to close, at a cost of more than 500 jobs.


‘Lifeline to polluters’


Opponents pointed out Ameren committed to the 2015 deadline as part of a 2006 agreement to reduce emissions at its coal-fired plants in Illinois. Attorney General Lisa Madigan was among those opposing the extension.


“The Pollution Control Board will need to decide if it will continue propping up polluters, or if it will stand up for children’s health and the environment by upholding the pollution reduction standard,” said attorney Faith Bugel of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.


The board charged with upholding Illinois’ environmental standards has thrown a lifeline to highly-polluting coal plants,” she said.


Both sides lobbied hard on the issue in the weeks leading up to the decision. Dozens of opponents and supporters, including power plant workers and witnesses who said coal emissions contributed to their heart and lung ailments, turned out for a hearing in Springfield in early August.


“It’s unusual to have that many pubic comments,” IPCB spokeswoman Connie Newman said Thursday. “They had comments at the hearings, and they also took written comments.”


Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536.