Decade-long Grassroots Campaign Shuts Two Chicago Coal Plants

CHICAGO, Illinois, March 2, 2012 (ENS) – Community organizers in Chicago are celebrating a victory that has been 10 years in the making – the closure of two of the oldest, most polluting coal-fired power plants in the country – both in residential neighborhoods. Some 60 organizations and groups worked with communities affected by air pollution to make Chicago a coal-free city.

Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, announced Wednesday that it will retire its two Chicago power plants as the result of an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago in consultation with aldermen and community groups.

Pilsen residents celebrate near the Fisk Generating Station, March 1, 2012 (Photo courtesy ELPC)

The Fisk Station at 1111 W. Cermak Road in the Pilsen neighborhood will be closed no later than the end of this year, and the Crawford Station at 3601 S. Pulaski Road in the Little Village neighborhood will be closed by the end of 2014.

“Midwest Generation has made an important and appropriate decision today, which will be good for the company, the city, and the residents of Chicago,” said Mayor Emanuel. “I committed during the campaign to work with all parties to address community concerns about the plants, and today’s announcement puts us on a more sustainable path for these neighborhoods. I acknowledge aldermen Moore, Solis and Cardenas for their work on this issue, and the community groups who helped to ensure all voices were heard in the process.”

The timing of the decision and the schedule for retiring the two plants is the result of a process Mayor Emanuel began on his first day in office, May 16, 2011. The company and the city have entered into an agreement finding that this timetable achieves the objectives of the proposed Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, which demands the Fisk and Crawford coal plants reduce carbon dioxide by half and soot by 90 percent. First introduced in 2010 and reintroduced in 2011, the ordinance has not been enacted into law.

Fisk coal-fired power plant in Chicago (Photo by Power)

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a leader in the decade-long fight, told reporters today, “This closing is a watershed. This is an important precedent that turns the tide for coal plants in Illinois and other Midwestern plant that are harming peoples health – forcing them to clean up or shut down.”

Pollution from these two plants has caused up to $1 billion in health and environmentally-related damages since 2002, according to a 2010 report by the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

But Midwest would rather shutter the plants than clean them up. Citing environmental regulations that take effect through 2015, Pedro Pizarro, president of Midwest Generation’s parent company, Edison Mission Group, said Wednesday, “Unfortunately, conditions in the wholesale power market simply do not give us a path for continuing to invest in further retrofits at these two facilities.”

“This is an extremely difficult decision because of the men and women who work in these plants and take great pride in their contribution to a reliable and affordable supply of electricity,” said Pizarro, who pledged to work “in good faith with leadership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to manage a transition for the dedicated professionals they represent.”

The retirements are subject to approval by PJM Interconnection, which manages the electric grid for 13 states, including northeastern Illinois. Once operations at the sites cease, Pizarro says Midwest Generation “will maintain them in a safe and prudent manner as redevelopment opportunities and funding are explored.”

As part of the agreement, the community, public health and environmental groups will not pursue their pending litigation against Midwest Generation. However a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Illinois continues regardless of the agreement.

Crawford coal-fired power plant in Chicago (Photo by Youth Lab 2007)

In August 2009, the federal and state governments filed a civil complaint against Midwest Generation, alleging that the company violated, and continues to violate, the Clean Air Act by making major modifications to its six Illinois power plants without also installing and operating required pollution control equipment.

As a result, Midwest Generation’s six Illinois power plants, which have a combined capacity of more than 6,000 megawatts, are illegally emitting massive amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter and violated opacity limits.

Learner said Chicago’s power supply will not be affected by the shut-downs. “Other people got the power – we got the pollution here,” he said.

“The plants are owned by a company from California, which got the profits. They were burning coal from Wyoming, which got the profits from selling that coal, and the plants are sending power all over the country, not to Chicago. The settlement should not affect rates or reliability,” said Learner.

Numerous studies have shown that the pollution from coal plants like Fisk and Crawford contributes to higher numbers of asthma attacks, especially in children, as well as more heart attacks, hospitalizations and early deaths.

Residents of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood celebrate the closure of the Fisk power plant, March 1, 2012 (Photo by Stephen Carrera courtesy Greenpeace USA)

“Pilsen is a vibrant, working class, immigrant community, but we are plagued by the damaging health effects of the Fisk coal plant. It is time for the plant to go,” said Pilsen resident Jerry Mead-Lucero.

In December, the U.S. EPA found that the air in a section of Pilsen contained unsafe levels of brain-damaging lead. Pilsen is one of only five new “non-attainment areas” for lead in the country. “Pilsen has a lead emergency and can’t wait,” said Pilsen resident Ruben Franco.

Next, the grassroots groups will establish a community advisory council to consider the future use of the two properties and provide advice to the city and the company. Faith Bugle of the Environmental Law and Policy Center said today, “We all want to see the sites reused and not just sit with a fence around them.”

Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities, commended the agreement that will lead to the closure of the two power plants.

In December 2011, the Chicago Clean Power Coalition delivered a photo petition with over 800 photos of city residents to City Hall with the message, “I have the right to clean air.” (Photo courtesy Chicago Clean Power Coalition)

Fisk and Crawford ranked as two of the worst environmental justice offenders in an NAACP report released last year. The report, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People in Illinois,” analyzed emissions and demographic factors, including race, income, and population density, to rank plants’ “environmental justice performance.” Fisk and Crawford both received a failing grade.

“This agreement means a cleaner, healthier environment for the communities around these coal plants,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “Environmental justice is a civil rights issue, and the NAACP is committed to strong regulation and monitoring of toxic coal emissions. For too long, Fisk and Crawford have been literally choking some of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods, and some of its poorest.”

“The 600,000 Chicago residents living within three miles of Fisk or Crawford have suffered long enough,” said Rose Joshua, president of the NAACP South Side Chicago unit. “This is a true victory for grassroots democracy – a group of citizens who refused to be marginalized and spoke up for the health and wellbeing of their families and their environment.”

Kelly Mitchell, Chicago resident and Greenpeace coal campaigner called the agreement, “a historic victory for the people of Chicago, who have demonstrated that grassroots activism is more powerful than the special interests of corporate polluters.”

“The Fisk and Crawford coal plants have loomed over the City of Chicago for a hundred years, fueling climate change and exposing families to dangerous levels of soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. After a groundbreaking 10-year grassroots campaign to shut down these archaic plants, Chicagoans have reclaimed their right to clean air.”

Mitchell said, “We hope other communities across the country will find new inspiration today to stand up for their right to clean air and a safe climate.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.