Kari Lydersen
Dirty Power

Coal-Burning Plants are Curse of Immigrant Communities

They loom above the mostly Latino immigrant neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village on Chicago's near southwest side, lending an almost surreal, apocalyptic atmosphere. Their tall smokestacks send out plumes of smoke and steam into the sky. Chain link fences surround their boxy brick bodies.

They produce the bulk of the electricity that powers air conditioners, space heaters and other household appliances for the whole city. And they belch out tons of emissions that collect in the throats and lungs of local residents and cause an estimated 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks and 550 emergency room visits per year, according to a 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Nationally, a study by the group National Campaign Against Dirty Power showed, 24,000 lives are cut short by an average of 14 years because of respiratory and heart problems and cancer exacerbated or likely caused by power plants.

Most people who lives in Pilsen or Little Village know that an extremely high number of children and adults here suffer from asthma and frequent colds and respiratory problems.

“There’s lots of asthma here,” said Carmen Velasquez, executive director of the Alivio Medical Center.

The two notorious residents of the Pilsen and Little Village communities causing these problems are the Fisk and Crawford coal-burning power plants.

They are among 15 power plants in the Chicago area, among the higher concentrations of coal-burning power plants per resident in the whole country.

Since they were built in 1903 and 1929, with generating systems dating to the 1950s and ‘60s, before the Clean Air Act took effect in 1977, Fisk and Crawford are exempt from meeting any pollution control standards. Plants built before the act took effect were grandfathered in and exempt from meeting regulations, though if they undertake extensive repairs or expansions they are supposed to upgrade to meet the standards.

But they will probably never be required to reduce their emissions because of moves by the Bush administration. These include a measure already passed relating to a process called New Source Review and pending legislation, the ironically titled Clear Skies Act.

Coal -burning plants are currently the most popular way of producing electricity, despite the high amount of pollution they produce compared to cleaner technology like solar and wind power and even nuclear power, which is cleaner on a day to day level though it produces radioactive waste and could result in catastrophic accidents.

The Bush administration’s proposed energy plan actually calls for building new coal-burning plants around the country along with maintaining the existing ones. Government reports released in 2004 included specific plans for 94 new coal-burning power plants in 36 states, and a goal of 1,300 new coal-burning plants by 2020.

“That’s one every five days,” said Brendan Bell, a staffer for the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Project. “This will have an incredible impact on our health and there will clearly be much more global warming,” since the coal-burning plants release greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and the breakdown of the ozone layer.

A number of activists, health advocates and political figures have been demanding the Fisk and Crawford plants and other coal-burning plants around the state and country clean up their act. In 2000 Alderman Ed Burke proposed the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, which would require the two plants to reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by about 90 percent by 2006. Even with the support of the American Lung Association and the aldermen representing Pilsen and Little Village, but lacking outspoken support from the mayor, the ordinance has languished in committees and never been put to a vote before the full city council.

“This is putting a lot of people at risk,” said Brian Urbaszewski, environmental health programs director for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “About two thirds of the problems could be eliminated if the plants were just brought up to modern emissions standards – the ones coal-fired plants had to meet starting 25 years ago.”

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the Pilsen Greens, the Pilsen Alliance and other groups have lobbied and protested extensively demanding the ordinance be passed, and in a non-binding referendum on the ballot during the 2003 election an overwhelming majority of voters in two Pilsen precincts voted for the ordinance.

They held two community hearings in 2003 to gain input for the Illinois EPA to use in formulating its recommendations on the plants, but when the IEPA’s recommendations report came out this year, LVEJO executive director Juan Miguel Turnil said, it didn’t include any input from the meetings. The coalition contacted the US EPA, and since that organization didn’t respond within 90 days, recently they filed a lawsuit demanding the governmental bodies respond to their concerns.

“If something like this was happening in another neighborhood, the IEPA would pay more attention,” said Turnil. “But when we’re talking about our neighborhood, it’s not a priority for them. They say we’ll look into it, and whenever we have time we’ll help you. We’re talking about discrimination and racism against our community.”

When Governor Rod Blagojevich was campaigning in 2001, he made a point of promising to force the plants to clean up their act. He said he would protect the environment and create 20,000 jobs by investing in cleaner energy alternatives and cleaner coal-burning technology.

But halfway through his term, he hasn’t followed through on that promise. State authorities presented a report which many clean air activists expected would include recommendations for state clean air regulations which would be stricter than the federal standards. But to their surprise and dismay, the report included no recommendations for cleaner air standards, saying a study on the impact on jobs and other factors of such regulations would need to be completed.

Representatives of Midwest Generation, the company that owns the two power plants and sells their energy to ComEd to distribute to the city, say implementing technology to drastically reduce emissions would be so costly the plants would have to close.

But Urbaszewski says the plants could afford to install equipment called “scrubbers” which would vastly reduce their emissions.

John Thompson, advocacy coordinator with the national Clean Air Task Force, said implementing stricter emissions laws could likely force smaller, older plants like Fisk and Crawford to close. But he said this would generally be the best thing for surrounding communities, since their loss would provide incentive for the building of new coal-burning plants with cleaner technology.

“Fisk and Crawford are just not what I see as good retrofit candidates,“ he said.

Contrary to what Midwest Generation officials have implied, he said rates for customers would not go up and there would be no electricity shortage even if Fisk and Crawford went out of business.

“This industry is deregulated, so there is competition for prices of providers,” he said. “Rates are not going to go up. Midwest Generation will have to bear the cost of the cleanup, they will have little opportunity to pass it on to customers.”

Meanwhile Urbaszewski noted that contrary to what would seem logical, implementing stricter clean air standards could actually be a big benefit to the Illinois coal mining industry, based largely in southern Illinois . As of now most Illinois coal-burning power plants buy coal from western states like Colorado and Wyoming , since it is much lower in sulfur content and easier to extract from the ground. Illinois coal is cheaper, but dirtier and harder to extract. Urbaszewski notes that if their were stricter regulations, companies would have to install scrubbers and other cleaning technology, meaning it would become cost effective for cheaper Illinois coal to be burned rather than imported western coal.

“The Bush regulations are aimed at promoting western coal, because that’s where he gets big campaign donations,” Thompson noted. “There’s no reason Illinois coal can’t fuel the state.”

Materials put out by Blagojevich during his campaign note that in 1978, there were 17,900 coal mining jobs in Illinois, which has the second largest base of coal of any state in the By 2000, there were only 3,850 coal mining jobs.

“Blagojevich believes that no conflict exists between energy security, the economic benefits to the state from coal mining and a clean environment,” his statement says. “A forward-looking coal policy would help Illinois , once again, to be able to use its own natural resources for power generation.”

Bush has helped heavily polluting plants like Fisk and Crawford keep operating by making changes to the New Source Review provision, which mandates that an old plant upgrade to meet current Clean Air standards when it makes major repairs. The changes in the regulations change the definition of maintenance and repairs to cover a wide variety of things including expansion.

“[Bush’s changes] weaken existing policy to the point that 30 to 50 year old plants can be replaced one part at a time and never trigger requirements to add pollution controls,” said Thompson.

Meanwhile with both existing plants like Fisk and Crawford and planned new coal-burning plants, it is lower income people, people of color and Latino immigrants who suffer the bulk of the health effects and reduced quality of life. The Harvard study and other studies have shown the health effects of the emissions are exponentially greater the closer one is to the source, meaning people who live within a mile of either plant are at much greater risk of health problems than people four miles away downtown.

A 2002 study by the National Campaign Against Dirty Power found that 71 percent of African-Americans lived in counties that violated air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of white Americans. African-Americans were also hospitalized for asthma attacks at three times the rate of white Americans. Reports by that group also found that seven of 10

Latinos in the are breathing air that violates federal standards, and 71 percent of Latinos live in counties that violate Clean Air Act standards.

Turnil noted that other factors in the Pilsen and Little Village also contribute to the poor air quality. There is an inordinate amount of heavy industry in the area in general, including the H.

Kramer smelting plant in Pilsen which is known to let off heavy emissions. And since the CTA transit authority cut weekend and night service to the neighborhoods, Turnil said there has been a measurable increase in use of cars, which also leads to air pollution.

“There are a lot of different factors,” he said. “All these things are linked. We need to work together to do something about it.”

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