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Wangari Maathai on the West Side

The Center for Neighborhood Technology recalls a 2007 visit to a Chicago school by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who died Monday in Nairobi at the age of 71.

Maathai graced the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park to attend the dedication of a natural garden that was named for her, one of CNT’s first green infrastructure projects.  The 1,500 square-foot native woodland garden at the school’s entrance  is “not only beautiful; it also connected the students to nature by providing a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation, and maintenance,” CNT writes.

“At the garden dedication, Ms. Maathai drew a connection between the work of the students on Chicago’s West Side to students around the world who ‘get down on the ground’ to plant gardens as a means of making the world more peaceful and just.

Read the rest of this entry »

Protests target trade pact talks

A Labor Day rally will kick off a week of action targetting negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement that critics fear will favor sweatshop manufacturers, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies at the expense of workers, farmers and consumers.

It’s yet another area where President Obama’s progressive supporters find themselves at odds with his administration’s policies, and it comes days before a major address on jobs in which the president may push for action on free trade deals.

Labor, environmental, community and health groups will rally Monday, September 5, at 11 a.m. in Grant Park at Columbus and Congress and march to the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, where talks start Tuesday.

The rally will “demand a fair deal — one that stops corporations from reaping big bucks by sending good manufacturing and service jobs overseas [and] depressing wages and benefits in Chicago and around the country,” according to Stand Up Chicago, a local labor-community coalition.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who recently announced that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is becoming entirely fair-trade-sourced, will speak – and provide free ice cream.

Trade officials from eight countries – and hundreds of corporate executives involved as “official trade advisers” – will participate in ten days of talks at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, starting September 6.

As talks start Tuesday, Ben and Jerry will join fair trade advocates (11 a.m. outside the Hilton) delivering 10,000 postcards to negotiators calling for protection of labor, environmental, and human rights standards. (See below for more activities.) Read the rest of this entry »

‘Youth spectacle’ transforms nature museum

The Redmoon Youth Spectacle, a massive “spectacle art” installation created by hundreds of Chicago students, takes over the south gallery and terrace of the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum for four nights this week.

Some 750 young people, including CPS students and residents of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, worked with Redmoon‘s Neighborhood Arts Program to design, create, engineer and perform a series of interpretations of their experience of Chicago’s urban ecology.

Redmoon shared the tools of the spectacle art for which it is known, including puppetry, gadgetry, surreal contraptions, acrobatics, sound installation and shadow animation, said Sean Kaplan.  Kids love it, he said.

Installations that were constructed at community sites are being transported to the museum, and about 60 kids are participating in performances which will transform the installations into a “living exhibition.”   Performances take place hourly between 6 and 9 p.m., Wednesday May 18 through Friday the 20th.  A 6:30 p.m. performance on Tuesday, May 17 is followed by a panel discussion by artists and educators.

Admission is $10, $3 for students, $25 for a family of five.  The Notebart Museum is at 2430 N. Cannon Drive in Lincoln Park.

EPA to MWRD: Stop polluting

After years of dilly-dallying by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the US EPA has stepped in with a determination that will require disinfection at two of the district’s three sewage treatment plants, the Tribune reports.

The Tribune report neglects the crucial work of area environmental groups, which have battled the MWRD in rulemaking hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board for years.  The district has spent $13 million fighting a proposed ruling, throwing up every argument it could muster that it should be allowed to continue polluting.

Just last week the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Prairie Rivers Network filed a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, seeking to stop the MWRD from dumping raw sewage and phosphorous in the the Chicago river system.

There may be a pattern here.  Last July, NRDC and the Sierra Club were among environmental groups announcing they would sue Midwest Generation under the Clean Air Act to force the company to clean up its coal-fired power plants.  A few weeks later the US EPA, Department of Justice, and the Illinois Attorney General initiated legal action against the company.

It’s one of the strengths of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that they allow citizens to sue for compliance, said Josh Mogerman of NRDC.

The US EPA’s determination calls for “expeditious” action, and as NRDC’s Ann Alexander points out in a Switchboard post, that puts the onus on the MWRD to “stop squabbling.”

Alexander agrees with the federal agency that disinfection is more urgent at the two targeted MWRD treatment plants, which discharge into the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Cal Sag Channel.   But she says the Clean Water Act will eventually require action at the district’s Stickney plant as well.

Also yet to be addressed in the environmentalists’ lawsuit is MWRD’s failure to remove phosphorous from its stormwater discharges.  Like disinfection, it’s a matter in which Chicago lags other metropolitan areas.

Watchdogs: Suspend nuclear licenses

As local activists mark the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the unfolding disaster at Fukushima has prompted a call to suspend operating licenses for U.S. nuclear power plants of the same design, including four in Illinois. Read the rest of this entry »

Gun range foes could get wildlife survey

[UPDATE 4-21 — The MWRD board voted 9-to-0 this morning to request a wildlife study for the area including the land proposed for a police firing range.]

Environmental activists opposing construction of a police firing range on the Southeast Side could get approval for a long-requested wildlife study at a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District meeting tomorrow.

The MWRD board will vote Thursday morning (April 21) on a motion to request a wildlife study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a140-acre area south of 134th, said commissioner Debra Shore.

Last year the board gave preliminary approval to a proposal to lease a portion of the area to the City of Chicago for construction of an outdoor firing range for use by Chicago and area police officers.

Local environmental groups argued that the gun range would disturb migratory birds in wetlands on the MWRD land and north of it in Hegewisch Marsh, where the city planned a major nature center.   The areas are part of the Calumet Open Space Reserve designated by the city several years ago.  Two ponds on the MWRD property are designated as National Wetlands.

The wildlife study would be “just a matter of due diligence on our part as the landowner,” said Shore.

It would also be “a big victory for the rank and file, for grassroots people,” said Carolyn Marsh, conservation chair of the Chicago Audubon Society.  “I wish it weren’t such a struggle to get what is just common sense.”

Marsh has been persistently pressing for a wildlife survey since she accompanied biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a walk-through of the area requested by the Southeast Environmental Task Force last summer.

IDNR reported it was “unable to determine” whether state protected species might be nesting in the area, and gave its approval to the project.  But nests of two significant though unprotected species, great egrets and great blue herons, were seen in trees nearby.

“When I saw those birds I said by gosh, we’re going to fight this,” Marsh said.

She kept digging and found an IDNR survey which found 139 nests of the endangered black crowned night heron on the site in 1985 – which had failed to turn up in an IDNR data base search for evidence of endangered species.

The Audubon Society maintains that even without evidence of endangered species, construction and operation of a firing range would violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by harassing the egrets and blue herons.

“That’s how species become endangered, because we’re continually encroaching on their habitat,” said Peggy Salazar, executive director of SETF.

SETF maintains the firing range is inappropriate in the open space reserve, which the city has recognized as the most significant wetland and natural area in the city.

MWRD still has to give final approval to the project after the city finalizes the plan and the City Council votes on it, Shore said.

Spotlight on Illinois nukes

Exelon chairman John Rowe cites “the absence of tsunami-type events” in Illinois, reassuring the Sun Times about the state’s eleven nuclear reactors.

Instead, Illinois has severe tornadoes and thousands of airliners flying into and out of O’Hare every day, most of our reactors are located on major flood plains, and some are in outlying reaches of the New Madrid fault line, says Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service.

“The problem with nuclear power is that the probability of accidents may be very low, but the consequences of accidents are extremely high,” he said.

The situation in Japan shows “why the public has a right to some healthy skepticism” about claims of safety for nuclear power, he said.

Four nuclear reactors in Illinois – two in Dresden and two in Quad Cities – are the same model and vintage as the nukes at the Fukushima plant, a design that’s been criticized as incapable of containing radioactivity in the event of a major accident.

The four Illinois nukes keep highly radioactive spent fuel rods in pools outside the containment buildings and elevated, making them subject to draining – and overheating, melting, and burning uncontrollably – in the event of a pipe break, Kraft said.

(Read Christian Parenti on the potentially critical role of spent fuel rods at Fukushima – and the work of nuclear safety activists in the U.S. highlighting lax protective systems for the highly toxic and unstable waste.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted 20-year extensions to Exelon’s operating licenses at Dresden and Quad City.

As noted in the Sun Times, state officials have an extensive monitoring program for Illinois nuclear plants;  NEIS backed a proposal to the NRC to adopt it nationally (it was rejected).  But state inspectors have little authority, while federal inspectors seem loathe to use their authority, Kraft said. He points out that federal inspectors stationed on-site did nothing to stop the degradation of Illinois nukes which ended up on the NRC’s watch list in the 1990s.

And state resources may be stretched thin. Last month NEIS called attention to a state auditor general report which found that in 2009 and 2010, the Illinois EPA skipped ten quarterly inspections of nuclear reactors which are required by law.

It’s due to the enormous cost and risk of nuclear power that the nation’s widely-touted “nuclear renaissance” has failed to attract private investment, Kraft said.  President Obama, who has listed nuclear power as part of his clean energy program, has requested $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear construction.

The lesson of Japan’s crisis is that “nuclear power is an inflexible, dangerous, costly, and unnecessary energy resource moving into the 21st century,” Kraft said.

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.

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