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Ill. regulators delay Ameren pollution controls

CHICAGO (AP) -- State regulators have granted Ameren Corp. a five-year delay in the installation of pollution controls at a large coal-fired power plant in southeastern Illinois after the company threatened to close other plants and cut hundreds of jobs.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board granted the delay Thursday, giving the St. Louis-based company until 2020 to install equipment to control smog, which is linked to heart and lung problems. The company had initially agreed to do it by 2015.

Ameren had argued that because of the drop in electricity prices — driven in part by competition from natural gas plants — it could no longer afford to finish installing sulfur dioxide scrubbers at its Newton plant under the original timetable.

Environmental groups lambasted the regulators' decision, saying it undercuts the state's pollution standards. Ameren said the move was necessary to save jobs.

"This decision is critical to our employees and the local communities surrounding our energy centers," Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch said in a statement.

The company said the drop in electricity prices and an inability to borrow money due to weakened credit ratings impeded the initial timeline for installing the equipment at the 1,186-megawatt plant.

Without more time, Ameren said it would have to take "Draconian measures" and shut down at least two coal plants whose jobs are economic lifelines in their communities. That led local politicians and business communities to warn of even deeper economic consequences.

Ameren had agreed in 2006 to meet new state rules on curbing emissions of mercury and smog-producing sulfur dioxide. Other coal utilities followed suit.

Ameren has already invested $1 billion in pollution controls, including $230 million at the plant in Newton.

Environmental groups said the delay would have a negative impact on public health and the environment. Some also argued that following through with the plans on schedule would have had a positive economic result by creating construction jobs.

"Instead we get more delay and dirty air," the Sierra Club's Illinois Director Jack Darin told the Chicago Tribune. "This is a big step in the wrong direction."