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Pilsen surveyed on future of coal plant site

Pilsen residents will fill out surveys at a community meeting Wednesday, describing what they want to see on the site of a local coal plant slated for closing.

It’s part of an ongoing survey being conducted by the Pilsen Alliance among its membership and at neighborhood churches and schools, said executive director Nelson Soza. The meeting is Wednesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Casa Aztlan, 1831 S. Racine.

The Alliance wants to present its findings at a hearing of the city’s task force on reuse of the Fisk and Crawford plants next week, Soza said.  The task force is holding community hearings on June 26 at the National Museum of Mexican Art and on June 28 at the Little Village High School.

Soza is among several community representatives on the task force, along with representatives of the city and Midwest Generation, which owns the Fisk and Crawford plants.  He says discussions have been “very positive and very respectful,” with “everybody generally headed in the same direction.”

The task force is charged with sketching out a general framework for redevelopment, he points out. “The challenges will come when the details start being put down,” following the task force report, expected next month.

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Call on Quinn to veto coal-gas subsidy

Hundreds of Southeast Side residents joined by local health and environmental groups will call on Governor Quinn to veto a bill providing ratepayer subsidies for a proposed coal gasification plant.

The bill, passed by the General Assembly in December with little public notice, would require natural gas utilities to buy from a $3 billion coal gasification plant – at nearly double the market rate – for the next 30 years. A New York company has proposed building the plant on the site of a shuttered steel mill at 114th and Burley.

The area has been struggling to overcome a legacy of polluting industries and to implement a city open space plan that calls for 4,000 acres dedicated to recreation and wildlife habitat.  (For background see previous post.)

Hundreds of residents will circle the Thompson Building, 100 W. Randolph, starting at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday, March 9) and rally at 11:30.  At noon a delegation of children and residents will deliver hundreds of post cards to Governor Quinn calling on him to veto the bill.

A hearing on coal plants, and an interesting endorsement

A broad-based coalition expects to turn out  hundreds of members Monday for hearings on an ordinance to clean up Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, a leading environmental group has endorsed the one mayoral candidate who has declined to support the ordinance.

The Chicago Clean Power Coalition will hold a press conference at City Hall on Monday, February 14, at 9:30 a.m., and Alderman Joe Moore and 16 co-sponsors of the ordinance will hold an ad hoc committee hearing starting at 10 a.m.

Public health experts will join elected officials and representatives of environmental and community groups in testifying on the ordinance.  Parents and youth will also testify about their personal experiences with the health impacts of pollution from the Fisk and Crawford plants operated by Midwest Generation on the Southwest Side.

The plants predate the Clean Air Act of 1977 and are exempted from its strongest provisions.  The ordinance would require them to meet modern standards.

“We’re trying to get as much motion as we can” on the ordinance, said Peter Gray of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Hearings by the council’s health and energy committees have been postponed for over 9 months under pressure from the Daley administration, he said.

Meanwhile, some eyebrows were raised by the Sierra Club’s endorsement of mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, the only candidate who failed to support the ordinance.  One community organizer working with the coalition called it “an interesting contradiction.”

In a candidates’ questionnaire on environmental issues, Emanuel withheld support for the ordinance and called for the plants to be cleaned up, but offered no timeframe.  Under an agreement with the state, stricter pollution controls will be applied starting in 2015 at Fisk and 2018 at Crawford.

In the group’s interview process, “it was clear to us he is committed to cleaning up or shutting down these plants,” said Becki Clayborn of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.  “If all other avenues have been exhausted, he would definitely support the ordinance.”

She added that “we believe the Clean Power Ordinance is the way to go, because we haven’t seen any action on the federal level.”

In January, candidate Miguel del Valle joined coalition members outside Fisk to support their efforts.

Environmental and community groups have been demanding the plants meet modern emissions standards for a decade.  A previous ordinance to clean up the plants was introduced in 2002.  In an advisory referendum the next year, voters in precincts around the plants supported that ordinance by margins of nearly 90 percent.

In 2002, a Harvard study found the two plants, which emit thousands of tons of pollutions each year, are responsible for 40 premature deaths each year, hundreds of emergency room visits and thousands of asthma attacks.

Particulate matter pollution is associated with heart attacks, with chronic respiratory disease in children, and with premature death due to lung and heart disease, according to the US EPA.

A recent study by ELPC estimated that emissions from Fisk and Crawford cost the public $127 million a year in added health expenses.

A coal-gas plant – and more – for Southeast Side

Residents of the Southeast Side only learned about a proposed coal gasification plant when a bill providing ratepayer subsidies for the project was introduced — and quickly passed — in the state legislature’s recent lame duck session.

Though State Senator Donne Trotter (17th District) sponsored the bill, “none of our representatives informed us of this,” said Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Along with environmental and health groups, SETF is holding a town hall meeting on the proposal – Thursday, January 27, 6:30 p.m. at The Zone, 11731 S. Avenue O – because “the community needs to be informed,” she said.

It’s not the first time a project has snuck up on residents.  Last year a plan to build a police firing range in a sensitive natural area was discovered at the last minute.

The town hall will discuss possible environmental and health impacts of coal gasification and review other existing pollution sources and other new projects being proposed in the community.  It’s cosponsored by the Sierra Club, Respiratory Health Association, Calumet Ecological Park Association, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The Sierra Club has opposed the proposal, arguing that while coal gasification is cleaner than burning coal, it’s far dirtier than natural gas – and that the ratepayer subsidy would mean annual hikes of as much as $100 in heating bills.  The group points to ratepayer protections and competitive bidding in the state’s renewable energy program as a better model.

There are also concerns specific to the community’s residents.  “They’ll be processing coal and pet coke [carbon waste from oil refineries], and our experience is when they store coal and pet coke, we have coal dust,” Salazar said.  “People’s homes get covered in coal dust – and that means people are also breathing it in.”

In addition, she points to the environmental costs of mining coal, including destruction of downstate farmland and water quality.

As the Tribune recently reported, Leucadia National Corp. of New York wants to build the $3 billion plant on the site of a shuttered steel plant at 11400 S. Burley.  The deal still hinges on Governor Quinn’s approval of Trotter’s bill – which would require Illinois utilities to pruchase synthetic gas from the plant for 30 years – and on approval by the Illinois Pollution Control Board for transfer of pollution credits attached to the old steel facility to Leukadia.  Illinois EPA has repeatedly opposed such a transfer.

For Salazar, there’s a larger question:  “Why do we keep getting all the dirty industry?”

Along with the Calumet Ecological Park Assocation and others, SETF has worked to shut down landfills and reclaim natural areas in a neighborhood that’s hosted polluting industries for a century.  The area includes Chicago’s largest lakes (Calumet and Wolf) amidst the largest and most ecologically significant wetlands in the Midwest, with a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life, including endangered and threatened species.

In 2002 the Chicago Plan Commission adopted a Calumet Land Use Plan which identified 1,000 acres for industrial development and 4,000 acres for recreation and natural habitat.  The Ford Calumet Environmental Center is planned for the Hegewisch Marsh south and west of 130th and Torrence, an area the city is rehabilitating.

“We know the area is zoned industrial, but we’d like to see some clean industry,” Salazar said.

Now, in addition to the coal gas plant and the firing range, a liquid asphalt facility is being planned for 106th Street and a commercial composting facility for 122nd and Carondolet, a few blocks from homes in Hegewisch.

“We’re environmentalists, we support composting, but do we want it so close to residential areas?”  Salazar said.  She’s heard reports of problems with odors at similar facilities, and says Chicago Composts LLC hasn’t been forthcoming with information on carbon emissions.  (A new law exempts commercial composters from emissions standards.)

“The Southeast Side still gets the garbage,” she said.  “It’s in a prettier package, but it’s still garbage coming our way.”

Clean Air and Water Show

Without a car, any Little Village resident going to the lakefront for the city’s Air and Water Show earlier this month would have had to take several buses – and probably walk a half mile or more in addition.

That’s just one of a number of issues to be raised by an alternative celebration, the Clean Air and Water Show, taking place this Saturday, August 28.

Sponsored by a coalition of grassroots environmental, community, labor and peace groups, the Clean Air and Water Show starts at noon with a rally for clean power at the Crawford coal-fired power plant in Little Village (34th and Pulaski).

Along with a sister plant in Pilsen, Crawford is the leading source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the city, said Michael Pitula of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

At 1 p.m. there’s a bike ride along the proposed route for a 31st Street bus line.  LVEJO has been organizing for restoration of the route for several years, pointing out that there’s a 25-block gap between east-west bus routes in Little Village – and that African American, Latino and Asian American communities on the South and Southwest Sides have no direct transit to the museum campus and lakefront beaches, Pitula said.

The route was eliminated in 1997, but since then several schools have opened, along with housing and shopping, in the area.  Restoring the route was first proposed by students at the new Little Village Lawndale High School, who pointed out that there’s no transportation for students who stay after school for tutoring, sports, or arts programs, Pitula said.

At LVEJO’s urging, the CTA applied for a federal Job Access Reverse Commute Grant and was awarded $1.1 million in 2009, contingent on coming up with matching funds. Then came a series of budget crises and service cuts.

LVEJO plans to ramp up efforts to identify local funding sources this fall, Pitula said; the federal funds must be returned if they aren’t used in the next year.  One idea is to ask the White Sox, Bears, and lakefront museums to kick in for matching funds.

“We need to turn the tide on service cuts,” he said.  “We’ve had a decade of service cuts, and it’s getting to the point that there’s not going to be much of a system left.”

At 3 to 6 p.m. there’s a Clean Air and Water Show at the 31st Street Beach, with skits, performances and speeches highlighting the value of clean energy and public transit for the health of Chicago residents – and as a source of jobs.

The contast to the military extravaganza staged by the city on the lakefront is intentional, Pitula said.

“It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “We can choose to spend our tax dollars on war or we can choose things like renewable energy and public transit.”

Clean Power spotlight on Solis after Munoz signs on

An grassroots campaign to win aldermanic support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance had its first victory yesterday when Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) signed on as a co-sponsor.  Meanwhile the other alderman representing a ward containing a coal plant, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), faces a protest outside a fundraising dinner tonight.

Solis has not endorsed the clean power ordinance, which would raise standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and particulates.

A press conference at 6:30 p.m. (Wednesday, August 4) and a “people’s dinner” outside Alhambra Palace Restaurant, 1240 W. Randolph, will highlight the group’s charge that Solis is “more concerned about his campaign donors than the health of neighborhood residents,” said Jerry Mead of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.

He said that Midwest Generation has been a major contributor to Solis’s campaigns.

Midwest Gen’s two Chicago plants, Fisk in Pilsen and Crawford in Little Village, cause premature deaths, ER visits and asthma attacks, and contribute to lung cancer and respiratory disease, according to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition.  The two plants are located in more densely populated areas than any other coal plants in the nation.

They are also among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the city, emitting 5 million metric tons – the equivalent of 872,000 cars – in 2007, according to the coalition.

In 2003 voters in a precinct near Fisk voted by nearly 90 percent in favor of tougher emission standards, Mead said.

In recent weeks PERRO and others have been petitioning residents at neighborhood festivals and churches.  “The response has been really good,” Mead said.  “It’s clear that people really favor the ordinance.”

Munoz announced his support for the ordinance Tuesday morning, citing congressional inaction on climate change and health concerns in his ward.

“For over eight years our communities have fought to clean up these plants, and we are glad Ald. Muñoz is responding to our cries for clean air,” said Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Aldermen targeted on clean power

With next year’s elections looming, national officers of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are coming to town to announce additional organizational resources for a ward-by-ward drive to win aldermanic support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance.

They’ll join representatives from nearly 50 environmental and civic groups in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition at a media event tomorrow (Thursday, July 15) at 11 a.m. at Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton.

The park is nearby Midwest Generation’s Fisk plant, one of two coal-fired power plants in the city that would be required to install modern pollution controls under the ordinance.  The two plants are held responsible for asthma and other health problems causing scores of deaths and hundreds of emergency room visits every year.

The ward-level, citywide campaign will include a focus on Aldermen Danny Solis (25th ward) and Rick Munoz (22nd ward), who represent Pilsen and Little Village, where the Fisk and Crawford plants are located.  To date, nine aldermen have joined sponsor Ald. Joe Moore (49th) in backing the ordinance; Solis and Munoz have yet to do so.

While the company has said it is reducing harmful emissions from the plants, Becki Clayborn of the Sierra Club’s Illinois  Beyond Coal Campaign pointed out that the US EPA and Illinois Attorney General brought them to court earlier this year because they are failing to meet current standards for emissions.  The plants have been charged with thousands of violations of opacity standards.

In 2006 the state negotiated a deal allowing the plants to continue operating but requiring them to meet modern emissions standards — starting in 2015.  Because they predate the Clean Air Act of 1977, they are exempt from its toughest standards.

Commonwealth Edison recently told Crain’s Chicago Business that within the next few years, the loss of either Fisk or Crawford “would create an unacceptable degredation of reliability in downtown Chicago.”

Clayborn is skeptical.  “We think that’s just speculation,” she saqid.  “We know [Fisk and Crawford] are only operating at 30 percent capacity on average, so they’re not creating that much power.”

They are creating about 5 million tons of carbon emissions yearly – the equivalent of 875,000 automobiles, according to the coalition.

“Burning coal to generate electrictity harms human health and compounds many of the major public health problems facing the industrialized world,” according to a recent report from Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report traces detrimental health effects from every phase of the coal power business – from mining to disposal of post-combustion wastes.  Coal power production contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S. – heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory disease.

Lester Brown: Hope for the future

Lester Brown discussed his latest book (Plan B 4.0) at International House last night – opening with dire predictions of overdrawn aquifers, disappearing glaciers, and rising seas all threatening humanity’s food supply, and moving to a cheery description of new technology which could allow us to curb climate change, if we choose to.

He held out little hope for serious progress from the Copenhagen conference next month – indeed, he thinks international climate treaties move far too slowly to make sufficient difference.  (He notes that politicians generally set carbon reduction goals for 2050, when they’ll be long gone, while scientists talk about the need to turn things around in the next decade.)  He was not sanguine about the cap-and-trade proposal now before Congress, noting such a regime has had little to no impact in Europe.

And citing a de facto moratorium on new coal plant construction in this country, he suggested the most significant changes will come from grassroots movements, not legislatures.

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