Proximity to basin, railroad make Tuscola prime site

Proximity to basin, railroad make Tuscola prime site

TUSCOLA – Robert Finley opened a can of Mountain Dew in front of 150 people Tuesday night at the Tuscola Community Center.

No, Finley wasn't thirsty. The Illinois State Geological Survey senior geologist wanted to demonstrate how the fizz in the pop – carbon dioxide – enters the atmosphere.

But sending carbon dioxide into the air is one thing that won't happen at FutureGen, the world's first coal-based near zero-emission plant.

Finley said most power plants release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as carbon fuels are burned, but FutureGen will use new technology to convert coal into a gas to produce electricity.

Instead of emitting carbon dioxide into the air, the gas will be piped a mile underground to an ancient saltwater sea contained by sandstone. The gas will dissolve safely in the water over 100 years.

That's where Tuscola comes in.

Bill Hoback of the Illinois Office of Coal Development said the state originally considered 33 sites for FutureGen, but most of them were disqualified because theydidn't meet strict federal criteria. Tuscola is one of four Illinois communities still in the running for the $1 billion plant. The others are Mattoon, Effingham and Marshall.

The public meeting Tuesday in Tuscola was the first to explain the proposed project to the public.

Finley said the plant couldn't be built in an earthquake zone for safety reasons. Because most of southern Illinois is along the New Madrid fault, that region was eliminated.

"The reason why we're here in Tuscola, rather than Cairo or Mount Vernon, is this is a nonseismic area," Finley said.

The plant also needed to be near an underground water source protected by strong geological formations and a large amount of sandstone.

Finley said eastern Illinois, western Indiana and western Kentucky sit over the 60,000-square-mile Illinois Basin, an ancient sea. The basin is protected in the Tuscola area by a thick layer of limestone, which would prevent carbon dioxide from moving to the surface.

Also, the plant needs railroad access because two trains a week will supply the plant from mines in Texas, North Dakota, Appalachia and Illinois. The proposed Tuscola site is just north of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks.

The plant's proximity to Tuscola's industrial plants – which could use byproducts produced by FutureGen – is also a plus, Hoback said.

"I think this would be terrific not only for our community, but for the entire area," Tuscola Mayor Daniel Kleiss said.

The U.S. Department of Energy will provide $750 million for the project. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a group of the world's largest coal and energy producers, will contribute the other $750 million.

Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc., said the primary effort is to convince federal officials to choose Illinois over other states.

Hoback said state officials will choose one or more of the four finalist communities by May 4 and then will submit a formal proposal to the FutureGen Alliance for evaluation. On July 21, the alliance will name up to six national finalist sites. Federal environmental officials will evaluate those sites; a final choice isn't expected until fall 2007, and the plant would be built in another six to seven years.

Hoback said he doesn't want people to consider Mattoon, Effingham or Marshall as competitors.

"We want to be supportive of the overall goal, which is to land this project in our state," Moody said.

State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said Tuscola's location between the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University, Parkland College and Lake Land College makes it ideal for researchers studying the new technology and for training employees to use the technology at FutureGen.

Hoback estimated the FutureGen plant would remain in operation for 80 to 100 years.

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