Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Old Problems, New Attention - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 2/4

The Fisk Generating Station, Pilsen, Chicago.

“I have a hard time believing if these plants were located on the north side of the city, that they would not have already been cleaned up by now.”
- Rev. Patrick Daymond, Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church, in testimony before the Chicago City Council, during hearings on the Clean Power Ordinance.

NOTE: The following is the second of a series of four stories about the environmental and health impact of coal fired power plants on densely-populated, low income Chicago communities. You can read part one, "Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder," here. More parts of this series, along with visualizations and some interactive elements, will be posted in the coming weeks.

Part One: Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder
Part Two: Old Problems, New Attention

Part Three: The People VS the Bottom Line

Part Four: Hopelessness and Hope in Pilsen

Visualization - Is there injustice in Pilsen?
Visualization - Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood struggles with pollution
South-side children have greatest exposure to lead in Chicago, health department data shows

They come in at the same time every day.

The lumbering train pulls more than 100 of them, each full with black coal rocks, up to the Will County Generation Station, where the contents are unloaded, mixed, and put on several barges and sent up river.

The barges meander up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal, where they dock alongside the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants.

The plants are owned by Midwest Generation, a Delaware limited liability company, solely owned by Edison Mission Midwest Holdings. In turn, Edison Mission Midwest Holdings is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Midwest Generation, EME, LLC. That limited liability company, in turn, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Edison International.
According to Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, Midwest Generation was “formed for the purpose of owning or leasing, making improvements to, and operating and selling the capacity and energy of, the power generation assets it purchased from Commonwealth Edison, which are referred to as the Illinois Plants.”

At the plants, the barges are relieved of their burden and go back down the canal as empty shells. But the coal – that gets turned into electricity. The Fisk and Crawford plants, located in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods on the lower west side of Chicago, respectively, together generate about 858 megawatts of power.

It’s also turned into pollution. The plants released 3,372 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,583 tons of soot, and 5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008, by the EPA’s count.

On May 24, things did not go as planned at the Crawford and Fisk plants.

“That smokestack’s been spewing for a long time. So, it’s about time for an especially dramatic reminder.”
Before the sun rose on that day, eight people donned respirators, rappelling harnesses and cold-weather gear, and began climbing the 450-foot stack of the Fisk Generating Station. When they reached the maintenance platforms near the top, they unfurled a yellow banner with black letters reading “QUIT COAL.”

“We made it,” activist Kelly Mitchell said into her video camera from the top of the stack in the morning, which Greenpeace posted on YouTube after the protest. “There are now quite a few police on the scene as well, as well workers. But spirits are good here, and energy is high and we’re going to continue our work to get out the message that Edison International needs to shut down these two plants.”
Meanwhile, another team of Greenpeace activists rappelled from a nearby bridge that the Crawford coal barge passes beneath. Dangling from ropes beneath the trusses, those activists let loose another banner of their own: “WE CAN STOP COAL / NOSOTROS PODEMOS PARAR EL CARBON.”

The three activists on the bridge completed their secondary objective by delaying three coal barges destined for Crawford. “The presence of the activists prevented the coal barge from passing,” A blogger on the Greenpeace website wrote. At the same time, activists at Fisk rappelled down the stack and began painting large, block letters in orange: “QUIT COAL.” A WGN news helicopter hovered above the scene, and Chicago police milled below, waiting for the protesters to come down on their own, rather than to risk a dangerous arrest on the stack.

All the media-ready activism was carefully orchestrated. At the same time, at a Crowne Plaza hotel in the West Loop, representatives from the Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), Physicians for Social Responsibility, and representatives of the coal industry waited to give testimony to the EPA. Greenpeace made sure their demonstration coincided with the day-long EPA hearings as to bring attention to pollution – at Fisk, Crawford, and the 532 other coal-fired power plants in the United States.

The EPA also was aware of the magnitude of the issue. “Toxic air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants cause serious health impacts,” the agency wrote in an announcement about the hearing. “Mercury can harm children’s developing brains, including effects on memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills. Other toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium and nickel can cause cancer.”

As the activists went to work, members of the Pilsen community gathered across the street from the plant for interviews with the press. Some held signs printed by the Sierra Club that read “Protect our Children / No Toxic Mercury.” Above them, the activists demanded that Midwest Generation officials meet with them. But when that didn’t happen, they announced that they would be staying the night on the stack. When the sun went down, Pilsen residents lit candles and prepared to stay the night as well. All of it was recorded by a mix of professional news crews, environmental activists and Pilsen residents, and posted online.

The Greenpeace activists ended up returning to earth in the morning, after being on the Fisk smokestack for 26 hours, and were immediately arrested. But, “The demand that Edison International close down Fisk and Crawford coal plants continues,” Greenpeace wrote on its website.

The activists may not have been able to stop the plants from operating, but they did succeed in one major way: by putting the Fisk and Crawford power plants on the national stage.

“That smokestack’s been spewing for a long time. So, it’s about time for an especially dramatic reminder,” said CBS’ Walter Jacobson, the anchor of the WBBM 6 p.m. newscast. “Meantime, here’s hoping for better weather so those people can climb back up the smokestack to make sure that Fisk keeps working at it.”

“Right now, there’s a big battle in the Chicago area.”

A BusinessWeek commentary in the June 4 magazine singled out the Fisk and Crawford specifically as reasons for tougher regulation of coal plants. “Living in Pilsen provides a time-travel experience to an era when the air in American cities was grittier and more dangerous,” Paul M. Barrett, assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, wrote.

The Greenpeace “direct action,” as the activists call it, required a high degree of technical skill and expertise. Protesters flew from as far as California and New York to arrive to the Chicago plants.

“I’m actually a full supporter and member of an international group of crazy-ass people who do this kind of work much more frequently than I do,” said John Watterberg, an activist who Greenpeace tapped for the Chicago demonstration, in a 2008 interview with a local Brooklyn magazine. “I’m more of a sleeper cell who comes through whenever they need someone to work around a crazy schedule.”

Watterberg was a veteran at this kind of high-risk endeavor. In 2005, he became part of the “smokestack six,” when he scaled a 700-foot smokestack The Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Masontown, Penn., and helped deploy a banner condemning the George W. Bush administration for dropping a Clean Air Act (CAA) investigation of the plant. “The Bush energy plan kills,” the banner read, which featured a cartoon skull and crossbones sporting a cowboy hat with the letter “W.”

For the demonstration at Fisk, the eight protestors were charged with a misdemeanor for trespassing and a felony for criminal damage to property. Most were let go on $15,000 bail. But for his lengthy history of civil disobedience, Watterberg had to post $30,000 for bail.

Watterberg did not respond to emails requesting interviews. Likewise, Greenpeace representatives did not agree to an interview, citing legal concerns about ongoing cases.

“They’re pretty tight lipped, they don’t really share a lot about those kinds of things,” said Jerry Mead-Lucero, an activist and leader of the community group PERRO, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, which is also engaged in efforts to curb emissions at Fisk.

“We think it’s great, basically. We weren’t involved ourselves, and that action was a Greenpeace action. We work with Greenpeace on the coalition that's trying to get the clean power ordinance passed. And we knew they were planning something, although we really didn't know what the action was going to be. They had said, we’re going to do an action in Chicago, do you think that would be a good thing or not?” he said.

One of PERRO’s chief efforts as of late is to rally support behind a Chicago city ordinance that would force the plants to permanently slash their emissions.
“There’s different ways to go about these issues. PERRO is focused on organizing, educating, mobilizing people in the neighborhood to get the ordinance passed and other stuff.” Mead-Lucero said.

“We’ve certainly done a lot of rallies and things like that, more than civil disobedience or direct action kind of stuff. It definitely highlights what’s going on to highlight the issue. They were getting the message out there. They painted a message on that smokestack which was exactly true, which was, that coal hurts people in the community.”

Fisk and Crawford were large targets for two primary reasons. One was that the plants were located in densely-populated areas, where a large number working-class, minority families lived.

Another was that these plants were some of the oldest and dirtiest plants in the country, according to the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “Midwest Generation has largely failed to install modern pollution controls on these coal plants,” the nonprofit environmental advocacy organization wrote in October 2010. “They emit far more pollution than newer coal plants that meet the federal air quality standards designed to protect public health.”

Perhaps ironically, the age of the plants saved them from federal regulations in the 1970s. The Clean Air Act amendment of 1977 set stricter rules for planned coal plants, yet grandfathered in some 200 existing coal plants, with the intention that those plants would eventually be phased out, ELPC wrote.

But for its day, Fisk was state-of-the-art. “Here the large turbo-generator units which have revolutionized the methods of generating electricity had their first trial,” wrote Samuel Insull in 1915, the electric utility and railroad magnate, who went on to fund the construction of the historic Chicago Civic Opera House in 1929. “This was the first electric generating station in the world to be equipped exclusively with steam-turbine generating units, and it became famous.”

Fisk was first built in 1903, and then upgraded with the current working generation unit in 1959. Meanwhile, Crawford’s generation units date back to 1959 and 1961.

Increasingly, the concern among environmental activists is that these plants will continue to skirt under local, state and federal pollution legislation. And as such, they’re choosing to target individual plants that have proven to be habitual polluters, like Fisk and Crawford.

“Right now, there’s a big battle in the Chicago area,” said Will Reynolds, chair of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, in an interview from Springfield, Ill. “I would expect that to be the next big phase of the coal campaign and the groups working on coal issues is target some of the older, higher-polluting plants and try to get companies to shut those down.”