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Ameren Corp. is seeking to delay installation of pollution controls on some coal-fired power plants in Illinois for six years because of weak power prices, and says it may be forced to mothball two plants if its request is denied.

The St. Louis-based company said its wholesale power generation unit, Ameren Energy Resources Co., simply can’t afford the equipment to scrub out sulfur dioxide from its coal plant emissions right now.

“Current market prices (for power) simply do not allow further investment in pollution control equipment at this time," Ameren Energy Resources President Steven R. Sullivan said in a statement.

Ameren filed a formal petition with the Illinois Pollution Control Board on Thursday seeking to push back the deadline for cutting sulfur dioxide emissions to Dec. 31, 2020. The current deadline for meeting stricter emissions standards is Jan. 1, 2015.

The company had previously announced plans to slow installation of sulfur dioxide controls at its Newton power plant in Jasper County. That project would have satisfied the 2015 sulfur dioxide standard.

Sullivan said the requested delay would give time for power markets to recover. And unless regulators approve the company’s request, Ameren may be forced to idle two of three coal-fired plants in Illinois that don’t have scrubbers.

Rebecca Stanfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office said Ameren’s proposal isn’t acceptable, and that the utility will have had eight years to make the needed investments.

“The public shouldn’t have to tolerate another five years of unscrubbed coal pollution or the health consequences that result from operating an ancient plant with last-century technology,” Stanfield said. “If it turns out that there are more cost-effective and cleaner ways of meeting our electricity needs, the market will allow those solutions to replace the existing coal fleet.”

Ameren said it’s also working on another possible solution to the problem. It’s asking regional grid operators to remove barriers that prevent the company from moving power from its downstate coal plants to northern Illinois, where market prices for electricity are higher.

“Solving this singular issue would be a first step in resolving our financial challenges,” Sullivan said.