PI Original Matthew Blake Thursday March 1st, 2012, 10:37am

Pilsen, Little Village Residents Cheer Coal Plant Closings

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agreement yesterday with the Midwest Generation energy company to close the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Pilsen and Crawford coal plant in Little Village is a milestone for residents in the moderate-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agreement yesterday with the Midwest Generation energy company to close the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Pilsen and Crawford coal plant in Little Village is a milestone for residents in the moderate-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

“This is a huge victory for our community and for Chicago Latino communities,” says Maria Torres, an organizer at Pilsen Alliance.

Community advocates have spent years documenting premature deaths and asthma attacks that come from people living by plants so old that, in the 1970’s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually declined to regulate the plants, figuring they would soon shut down.

“We have been working for ten years on this,” says Jerry Mead-Lucero, an organizer at the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. “To have a victory on this after ten years of fighting is just unbelievable.”

Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California power company Edison Mission Group, will shut down the 109 year-old Fisk plant in Pilsen by December 2012. The 88 year-old Crawford plant in Little Village will close by December 2014.

Pedro Pizarro, president of Edison Mission Group, explained in a statement released by the mayor’s office that the company could not retrofit the plants to meet pending 2015 clean air regulations. Pizarro also noted that his company would work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to transition plant employees.

It is not clear what will happen to these sites. At an unrelated press conference Wednesday, Emanuel declined to speak about the future of either site.

Pilsen Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said in an interview that there are “several options” for the Fisk site, including more green space for the area and a smaller business to replace the plant.

The agreement follows activism from community, and bigger environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council – who will now withdraw a class action lawsuit against Midwest Generation, as well as a few key political developments.

In 2010, Ald. Joe Moore (49th) introduced the Clean Power Ordinance to City Council, a bill with clean air requirements strong enough to either force Fisk and Crawford to shut down or convert to natural gas.

The ordinance first appeared politically unrealistic. Ald. Ed Burke (14th), chairman of the finance committee, introduced similar legislation in 2002 that quietly died on the vine. Plus, the bill put the Chicago Department of Environment in the business of regulating climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the legislation made more visible the tangible threats of the coal plants, and gained the support of Little Village Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd).

Also, in 2010, a Clean Air Task Force report blamed the plants for 66 premature deaths and 144 heart attacks annually. “Presenting facts were a great tool in getting more people involved,” says Raphel Hurtado, an organizer at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

The next year Pilsen Ald. Danny Solis (25th) faced a runoff for re-election against community organizer Temoc Morfin – who made the election a referendum on Solis not supporting the Clean Power Ordinance.

A month before the April 2011 runoff, Solis said that would not only support the ordinance, but also become a co-sponsor with Moore.

The support from Solis, who narrowly won re-election, made other aldermen fall in line. By July 2011, two-thirds of the council backed the bill.

“I think I helped turned it around,” Solis says. “Before I got on board we couldn’t get as many city council members.”

At the same time Emanuel, became mayor and was more interested in shutting the plants down than his predecessor, Richard Daley.

“The schedule for retirements was the result of a process Mayor Emanuel initiated on his first day in office,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office. “This timetable achieves the objectives of the proposed Chicago Clean Power Ordinance.”

By negotiating directly with the mayor, Midwest Generation prevented an ordinance that could have been a historic blueprint for how local government can take on coal plants. At the same time, the city avoids an almost certain lawsuit from Midwest Generation that would claim local government has no business regulating greenhouse gases.

“It was kind of good for everybody that it ended up this way,” Mead-Lucero says.

Later today, there will be a celebration of the new deal and end of the coal plants at Pilsen's Dvorak Park at 11 a.m.

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Great news - a testament to the power of Coalitions, which included community groups, SEIU, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Respiratory Health, and many others; also kudos to Ald. Solis who did the right thing in a big way, helping to push it over the edge.

Great news! This is a huge victory. Congratulations!
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