Before there was "natural gas" a more toxic, man-made version was openly burned to light homes in European and North American cities. Called coal- or town-gas, it was a common source of illumination up until the 1940's. I once rented a flat in Chicago's Lincoln Park which contained converted antique coal gas chandeliers every bit as lovely as the one pictured here.
Real danger lay at both ends of the coal-gas pipe. The coal gas which once burned in residential lights contained hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and whatever sulfurous oxides and heavy metal vapors went along for the pipeline ride from the gasification plant. (Customers of the time suffocated from CO poisoning if the lights went out.) Because I was a Superfund cleanup worker in Chicago, I realized that at the upstream ends of the abandoned coal gas pipes lay polluted remains of gasification plants(s). A half-century on, many such sites were designated for taxpayer funded Federal cleanup (responsible parties being long gone). South side of Chicago has them. So did every other large US city established before the 1850s.
Now, Chicago Business reports, Illinois "Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation that could lead to the construction of a new plant in Chicago that converts coal to natural gas."
Italianate graystone on Belden Street, Lincoln Park, Chicago. Image credit:Google street view.
The proposed new Chicago coal gasification plant will certainly be more efficient and tightly run than its Victorian-designed predecessors were; and, the final product absolutely will not contain carbon monoxide or high levels of sulfurous oxides as did turn of the century coal gas. That's real progress. But, the feedstock for the new plant might well be sulfurous, salty Illinois coal and energy inputs will be needed to gasify it.
Coal magnates certainly must adore this proposal. Apparently the Governor does. However, there is no word yet on what the developer, New York-based Leucadia National Corp, plans to do with the mercury, lead, arsenic, and sulfur residues that would necessarily accumulate at or be released from the proposed plant: what with conservation of matter and all that other messy stuff which Tea Partiers and politicians of both parties in coal producing states are prone to overlook. (This is exactly why we need a Federal EPA riding shotgun on emission and hazardous waste standards.)
Return of the smell of a South side paycheck?
This ain't no proposed pilot plant. Chicago Business mentions a possible $3 billion capital expense. There will be every emission and residue type possible. Odor potential will be a concern with the neighbors
Room for optimism?
Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that the Cubs permanently lost their winning mojo in 1945, not long after the last gas light had been disconnected. Perhaps this proposed project would break the curse and end forever the burning Chicago question "Who Stinks Now?":