MATTOON – Barring a monumental turnaround, Coles County's seven-year love-hate relationship with the high-tech FutureGen energy project has ended.
The president of the county's economic development agency Wednesday informed U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that the community was not interested in being a part of FutureGen 2.0, a project substantially different from the original FutureGen, which included plans for a coal-gasification power plant in Mattoon. The revised project called for carbon emissions from an Ameren Illinois power plant in Meredosia to be moved by pipeline to an underground storage field just outside Mattoon.
"It is with great disappointment that I must inform you that the citizens, neighbors near the site, business leaders and community leaders in Coles County are nearly unanimous in the belief that the pursuit of FutureGen 2.0, as proposed, is not in our best interest," wrote Angela Griffin, the president of the Coles Together economic development group.
"We take this position with deep regret, but after thoughtful consideration. Unfortunately, the revised $1.2 billion project does not provide for the highest and best use of a Mattoon site that top scientists, researchers and engineers have determined to be the best location in the nation for a clean-coal facility and on-site carbon capture and sequestration research," she continued.
Griffin added that "hosting the original FutureGen was something this community embraced with great pride. Ours would be a distinct and honorable mission in an emerging scientific field. Mattoon was to be a focal point for smart, forward-looking solutions in a carbon constrained world.
"Unfortunately, our role in FutureGen 2.0 does not support that effort."
In an interview, Griffin said she hoped Coles County could revive the original FutureGen project "or something that is very dissimilar from (FutureGen) 2.0 that could be very beneficial to our community."
She said there was "absolutely no support in the community (for FutureGen 2.0). For every 97 people that said no, there were three lukewarm yes or maybes."
The next step for Coles County, Griffin said, would be the hope "to sit down with the Department of Energy and thoughtfully consider options that would be beneficial for Mattoon."
But that may be impossible in view of Durbin's statement Wednesday that the Department of Energy should begin to look for another Illinois community interested in hosting the revised FutureGen.
"I am disappointed by the decision of community leaders in Mattoon and Coles County to forgo participation in the FutureGen 2.0 project, but as I said at the outset, I will abide by their decision," Durbin said.
"This week, I will ask the Department of Energy to solicit other Illinois communities to take on the role envisioned for Mattoon. Both my office and the Department of Energy have heard from a number of communities throughout the state expressing their interest."
A Durbin spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, said that "maybe I misread the letter, but it doesn't seem (Coles Together) wanted to negotiate."
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, whose congressional district includes Coles County, predicted FutureGen 2.0 would never be built.
"I contend that this FutureGen 2.0 will never come to fruition," Johnson said just minutes before the Coles Together decision was announced. "I don't think this will ever happen. It's a shadow of itself. It doesn't do anything that FutureGen did. At the end of the day, I don't think it will happen either."
The Urbana Republican said he would have urged Coles County officials to reject FutureGen 2.0.
Johnson said he was disappointed in the way the Department of Energy, Durbin and the Obama administration allowed FutureGen to evolve without informing Coles County officials.
"The process just frankly stinks," Johnson said. "I had a very unpleasant interchange with Secretary (Samuel) Bodman in the Bush administration about this, too. So I guess I have equal opportunity anger, let me tell you. Despite that, at least (the Bush administration) kept us posted."
After promoting the FutureGen concept, the Bush administration pulled the plug on the idea once the site near Mattoon was chosen for the project. FutureGen received new life with the election of President Obama.
Johnson said "the buck stops with Barack Obama. He was the senator from Illinois. He signed seven letters (of support) for it. He knows about this project. He campaigned on it twice. And so while Sen. Durbin and the Department of Energy owe us a lot of answers to a lot of questions, at the end of the day the president could have done this two hours after he was inaugurated in January 2009. And now we've got something that is dramatically different."
State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said he supported Coles Together's decision to drop out of the FutureGen sweepstakes.
"I think it's ridiculous that our community was forced to make a decision in a vacuum where the 'facts' of 2.0 changed depending on who you were talking to," said the lawmaker whose House district includes Coles County.
Rose also said Coles officials were right "to express their concern for the safety of this new concept and not wanting to become the 'dumping' ground for other people's waste."
Shoemaker said that if FutureGen 2.0 is to be built, things are going to have to move quickly.
"We've talked to the Department of Energy, and they've said that two to six weeks is all that could possibly be spent here," he said.
The $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for FutureGen 2.0 has to be obligated by Sept. 1.