Both the courts and Illinois Legislature are involved in a dispute over whether discarded plastics can be added to coal to produce cheaper electric power. At the heart of the question is whether these plastics, which would include polyethylene containers from agribusiness, should continue to be called ``waste'' instead of ``alternate fuel'' under Illinois law.
If these plastics are waste, they fall under the same rules of burning as hazardous waste; therefore, they cannot be used as a power-generating fuel, according to Illinois Environmental Protec-tion Agency arguments in a Sangamon County Circuit Court brief filed by Illinois Power Co. on Feb. 16.
But plastic fuel proponents argue in the brief that the nonhazardous nature of shredded PE mixed at a 10-1 ratio with coal to fire steam plant boilers makes the plastic - cheaper than coal, yet producing as much heat - much more efficient.
Illinois Power wants a declaratory judgment in the case, which also asks for the right under state law to burn wood, paper and agricultural products with coal.
Watching from the sidelines is an Illinois start-up waste-to-energy company that hopes to mix 100 million to 150 million pounds annually of nonchlorinated plastics with the state's indigenous high-sulfur coal to produce cheaper electricity.
And in the General Assembly, first-term Rep. Don Jones, R-Mount Vernon, and others have sponsored a similar measure to change the state's definition of waste.
The bill is in the House Rules Committee and can only be acted upon in the 1996 session of the two-year legislative term if lawmakers deem it an ``emergency'' or budget issue.
``Illinois Power asked me to sponsor it,'' Jones said March 12. ``It looks like it's not going to move this session.
``I have not had any contact with people I represent concerned with the environmental impact of the bill,'' Jones said.
The Illinois EPA holds no position on the Jones bill. Regardless, 60 million pounds of used tires are being burned annually in the utility's Baldwin, Ill., plant, 40 miles from St. Louis, with plans to bring that level up to 120 million pounds.
Besides the definition of ``waste,'' Illinois EPA spokeswoman Julie Neposchlan added: ``This legislation in its present form limits the amount of supplemental material to 20 percent, while the U.S. EPA allows 30 percent. We're below the threshold. We're not interfering with the federal requirement and we're providing extra safeguards.''
She did not know the need for or extent of the extra safeguards.
Illinois Power spokesman John Dewey in Decatur said federal law allows the inclusion of plastics as an alternate fuel.
``We don't agree with the state's interpretation of federal law,'' he said. ``We feel we don't need to get a special classification from the state'' to use plastics as an efficient supplement to coal-burning operations.
If state law is overturned or changed, Resourceful Environ-mental Ideas Inc., the Belleville waste-to-energy technology company, would supply Illinois Power with a minimum of 200 million pounds of what was formerly termed waste to burn at the Baldwin and Wood River plants, according to David Wieties, REI's president. Up to 75 percent of that would be plastics, he said.
``We've generically excluded chlorine [chlorinated plastics] because historically it has been deleterious to utility boilers. In time we may learn to burn the chlorine as well,'' Wieties said.
Although 5 percent of those plastics would come from ``triple rinsed'' shredded agricultural pesticide containers, Wieties said he has illustrated the need to remove plastics from the waste stream by focusing on how agricultural plastic containers can be used in his process.
Wieties, a former Illinois EPA inspector, first brought the plastics power generation idea to Illinois Power in July 1994. REI has applied to the state agency for permits to hold ``test burns'' in May and June, he said.