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Quinn Signs Bill Allowing For Coal-To-Gas Plant On Southeast Side

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It sounds like energy magic: turning Illinois coal into natural gas. But Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation on Wednesday that allows for construction of a high-tech plant to do just that.

The coal-to-gas plant will be located near 117th Street and the Calumet River on the site of the former Republic Steel plant.

CBS 2's Derrick Blakley has more on what it means for consumers and the depressed South Deering neighborhood.

With the stroke of a pen, Quinn paved the way for a new, high-tech energy plant on the southeast side, in what's now an industrial wasteland.

"This is a natural gas opportunity for the next generation. We have to do it right, do it affordable, do it in a clean way and create jobs," Quinn said.

Using a chemical process, the new plant would turn Illinois coal – shipped in on boats and barges – into synthetic natural gas, which four local utilities will purchase.

"This is not junk science. This is the future of energy and delivery far into our future. And this is how the new America is going to create jobs," State Rep. Marlow Colvin (D-Chicago) said.

The old America produced plenty of jobs at the old site of Republic Steel. Ed Merkel worked there, but hasn't worked much lately.

"I'm here for some work. I haven't worked for about a year and a half, two years," Merkel said.

The new plant's owners promised a $30 million dollar cleanup of the highly polluted site.

The plant will also provide 1,000 construction jobs to build the facility and 200 permanent jobs to run it.

But some environmentalists oppose the plant.

Josh Mongerman with the Natural Resources Defense Council said the plant will add to the pollution burden in the area.

"That neighborhood already has problems with soot and ozone. Those are chief components that will be created by this project," Mongerman said.

But backers insisted that the project will be so clean that it could operate downtown.

"The pollution permits that they will be applying for will have less of a pollution footprint than the Art Institute of Illinois or Northwestern Memorial Hosptital," Colvin said.

The best guess is it will take at least three years to get the plant up and running, but critics say it still doesn't make economic sense. The plant will produce synthetic gas at a time when America is awash in regular, natural gas and probably will be for years to come.

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