City holds hearing on Clean Power Ordinance
March 4, 2011

By Patrick Butler

“All we want is the right to breathe,” Little Village resident Kim Wasserman-Nielo told an ad hoc City Council hearing on a Clean Power Ordinance that would require the city’s last two coal burning electrical generating stations, one in Pilsen and one in Little Village, to clean up or close down.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said he called the Feb. 14 hearing after the ordinance co-sponsored by 17 aldermen had languished in committee for the past ten months. If adopted, the measure eventually would mean a 90% reduction the amount of soot and global warming pollution the plants could release into the air, ordinance supporters say.

“We want a hearing, we deserve a hearing, and we’re going to have one today,” Moore, the ordinance’s chief sponsor, told a rally outside the City Council chambers just before a parade of speakers including Wasserman-Nielo gave a variety of economic and health arguments for cracking down on Midwest Generation’s Fisk station at 1111 W. Cermak Rd. in Pilsen and the Crawford plant at 3501 S. Pulaski Rd. in nearby Little Village.

“We need to replace outdated energy sources that are life-threatening,” Wasserman-Nielo of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said.

“Clean energy will rebuild not only our communities but the manufacturing and construction industries,” she said, waving a stack of letters from students from “every possible school in the area’’ demanding something be done about the plants.

$127 million

Attorney Warren Lavey of the Environmental Law and Policy Center said pollution costs $127 million in health care costs for diseases such as emphysema, lung cancer, heart attacks, and especially asthma.

Mike Johnson, who now works for Greenpeace after five years with the Chicago Department of Environment, said the Fisk and Crawford plants emitted 4.79 billion tons of carbon dioxide—and more than 10% of Chicago’s greenhouse gas emissions—in the year between October 2009 and September 2010.

As far back as 2001, a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated the Fisk and Crawford plants caused 2,800 asthma attacks, 500 emergency room visits, and 41 premature deaths every year.

So why hadn’t the city, cracked down on Midwest Generation before this?

“I think a lot of this lies in the amount of dirty money that underlies the politics associated with these plants,” Johnson told the hearing.

For Wasserman-Nielo and Patricia Mendez, the plants are a very personal issue. Mendez saw her husband develop asthma his doctor said was due to pollution after emigrating to the community from the Caribbean. Two of Wasserman-Nielo’s three children have asthma.

“I don’t think it’s fair my biggest concern is whether my kids are going to be able to breathe today,” she said.

“Protecting the public is not only the responsibility of the City government but a moral obligation as well,” said Rev. Patrick Daymond of the Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church, 600 E. 35th St. “I understand the importance of jobs,” he continued, noting arguments by the plants’ proponents that the community needs the jobs they provide. Nevertheless, “If Midwest Generation cannot do their business in a safe way, then I think they should leave the community,” he said. “I have a hard time believing that if these plants were on the North Side they would not have already been cleaned up or closed,” he said.

Missing in action

Midwest Generation officials did not testify at the hearings despite an invitation from Moore and were not immediately available for comment. Nor was Ald. Daniel Solis, whose 25th Ward is home to both the Fisk and Crawford plants.

Moore said he was not surprised Solis did not appear at the hearing. “He already said he was opposed to the ordinance, but we can always hope he’ll see the light,” Moore said.

Nevertheless, Moore said he was disappointed at Solis’ behavior.

“I would have thought he’d jump at the chance to regulate plants in his ward that are causing so much illness. I just don’t understand it,” Moore said.

A Solis aide promised to have a statement outlining the alderman’s position, but that statement never arrived before deadline.

Solis, however, did tell the Gazette previously that he did not see any reason for the new ordinance because he understood Midwest Generation already was cleaning up the plants.

Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) said his group has been working on this pollution problem for the past eight years or so.

An earlier attempt to get a Green Power Ordinance passed “kind of died in committee,” said Mead-Lucero, noting this latest anti-pollution legislation introduced last summer is “closer than ever” to getting passed.

Asked why it has been so hard to crack down on the plants, Mead-Lucero complained that existing State regulations “don’t deal with all the pollutants we’re concerned about, like soot. They deal with sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, but they don’t regulate particularites or greenhouse gases.

“The changes they [the plants] have made are relatively minor. And they’re not required by law to do much because they were grandfathered in back in the 1970s. Nobody expected plants like Fisk and Crawford to last this long. They basically live up to the minimum,” Mead-Lucer said.

After opponents filed a federal lawsuit against Midwest Generation in 2009, company officials said the firm already was working on the problems outlined in the complaint.

Cleanup promised

Under a 2006 deal with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Midwest Generation promised to clean up or close down both plants by 2018, which some skeptics think cuts the company far too much slack.

In a statement issued at the time, Midwest Generation officials called the agreement with the EPA “as tough or tougher” than those the feds were offering other power companies. Under that agreement, Midwest Generation said, equipment upgrades will cut smog forming nitrogen emissions by 2012, toxic mercury emissions by 90% by 2015, and emissions of sulphur dioxide—an ingredient in smog and acid rain—by 4% before the end of 2018.

“While we remain open to exploring settlement of this complaint, we have a progressive record of environmental performance and leadership we will be prepared to vigorously present and defend,” the company’s statement added.

While that does not wash with activists like Mead-Lucero, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Bureau of Air division manager said pollution reduction agreements were reached with nearly all Illinois coal-fired power plants including Crawford and Fisk, during 2007 and 2008.

“These agreements require reductions in the emissions each year of hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollutants, specifically mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides,” Ross said.

Under the pollution reduction agreements, “both Crawford and Fisk installed state-of-the-art mercury controls in 2008, a full year before most other plants in Illinois were required to install such controls,” Ross said.

Ross added that the agreement also requires both plants to meet stringent emission limits on nitrous oxides starting in December, 2011. Fisk also has the option of shutting down or installing sulfur dioxide controls by Dec. 31, 2013.

As of now, Midwest Generations is in compliance with the Multi Pollution Reduction Agreement, Ross said.