Friday, September 9, 2011

Hopelessness and Hope in Pilsen - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 4/4

An anti-Fisk poster hung by activists in a Pilsen Thrift store.
“And every morning was a requiem
or the feast day of a martyr -
the priest in black or red,
cortege of traffic, headlights
funneling through incense
under viaducts. While my surplice
settled around me like smoke
my father rode the blue spark
of a streetcar to the foundry
where, in the dark mornings,
the cracks of carbonized windows
flowed with the blood of stained glass.”

- Excerpt from “Autobiography,” a poem by Stuart Dybek, a Pilsen native and a 2007 recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant.”
NOTE: The following is the last in a series of four stories about the environmental and health impact of coal fired power plants on densely-populated, low income Chicago communities. It's called "Battle in the Barrio: the Struggle in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood Against Pollution." The series is a journalistic project that culminated in a master's thesis for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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

If you have the time, Maria Torres has stories.

Since she became a community organizer a decade ago, helping gather signatures for petitions and lately rallying support for the Clean Power Ordinance, she’s collected quite a few.

Mostly, they involve people who’ve suddenly come down with asthma, respiratory illnesses, rare forms of cancer, lupus and other medical abnormalities.

“I have a family that lives right in front of the Perez school,” she said. “Her son was just diagnosed with asthma, and has to use an inhaler. And he’s real little. You feel for them, because they tell you how hard it is for her son to use the inhaler. It’s really hard for him because he’s a little kid and he doesn’t know how to. He just developed it, and didn’t have it before. I feel for them, I really feel for them. And it scares me.”

In addition to the verb “scares,” as in, “it scares me,” and “freaks,” as in “it freaks me out,” she frequently uses the adjectives “spooky” and “weird” to describe the magnitude of health problems she’s heard of while knocking on doors as a community organizer in Pilsen.
There’s the story she heard about an 80-year old woman, who lives on Morgan between 18th and 19th streets, not far from the Fisk plant, and got a routine X-ray for breathing problems.

The doctors asked the woman’s daughter, who took her mother in to be examined, if the mother was a regular smoker.

“She’s never smoked a day in her life,” Torres said. “But her lungs were all black.”

“I had another mother who died of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),” she recalled, “People are beginning to wonder. I remember ‘blah-blah-blah’ having this and, you know, all these stories are coming up with people’s health and what they’ve had.”

Torres lives in the North Lawndale community, which borders the Pilsen neighborhood on the northwest side, and lately has been an unpaid volunteer for Pilsen Alliance. She’s organized in other communities, but she hasn’t seen the kinds of health problems she’s encountered in Pilsen.

“It’s crazy,” Torres said. “And so many of these residents are young. I’m shocked. I’ve organized other communities, like West Englewood, and I’ve never seen people (sick) at the magnitude I’ve seen here. Back from knocking on doors, I’m freaked out. It really freaks me out. Some families are so sick, it’s unbelievable.”

Leila Mendez, a resident of Pilsen for 40 years, found a lump in her left breast in 1998.
“I scheduled an appointment to get everything looked at,” Mendez said. “They did all of those tests that were necessary and they wanted me to come back in six months, but I said no. I want this mass taken out immediately.”

Mendez said she had made a wise choice – during the operation, doctors discovered that the lump was a phyllodes tumor, an especially rare and aggressive variety of cancer.
“I probably would have died,” she said.

She started to wonder how she got the tumor.

“The doctors were surprised because I didn’t fit the profile. I wasn’t overweight, I hadn’t smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol, and I was very healthy,” Mendez said. “And no breast cancer history in the family. Nothing like that.”

Mendez practiced Adventism, a type of Christianity whose followers practice vegetarianism. And while her diet may not have ultimately prevented her from developing cancer, she attributed it to her being able to survive cancer.

“Advents are well known for their health messages,” she said. “When I turned nine, that’s when my parents converted to Adventism. And so we stopped eating pork, stopped eating certain meats. My father didn’t drink anymore, he didn’t drink coffee. So we were living very healthy.”

She never thought much about the air quality in Pilsen until she started attending PERRO meetings. She began reading medical reports about links between pollution and cancer, and started believing more and more that the cause to her tumor was all around her.

“All of these things are coming out,” she said. “All of my questions were answered.”

One of her sisters has thyroid problems, while another survived thyroid cancer. Mendez’s father came down with emphysema, despite never having smoked. She remembered her mother suffering from allergies, and her sister’s son, who also battled allergies before moving out of Pilsen. And like other Pilsen residents, Mendez had blinding headaches as a child.

“They moved away a year, and he hasn’t suffered since,” she said. “I also attribute that to pollutants.”

The phyllodes tumor wasn’t Mendez’s first brush with death. She remembered looking out a window when her son was five, and watching gangbangers running down the alley. She yelled at her son to duck, which caught the attention of one of the hoodlums.

“And then they pointed one of those big guns that you see on TV at me,” she said. “And they looked at me and I looked at them,” she said.

The gangbanger took his gun off of Mendez and kept running with the rest of his crew.

“That was scary.”

Another vivid memory was the first one she ever had of gang violence in Pilsen. As a child, she witnessed a man being killed, and his body being dumped in a trash can near her home.

“I remember that because I knew the guys who did it,” she said. “But I didn’t say anything to anybody.”

“My goodness, that poor man,” she added.

Yet, Mendez says she feels safer in Pilsen than in other Chicago neighborhoods. She has no intention of leaving, for pollution or for crime.

“I do all of these things and I keep a positive attitude, because I figure if God thinks it’s my time, it’s my time.”

“But in the meantime, I do what I can,” she said.

Besides anecdotes, there’s scant scientific data about what medical troubles affect Pilsen residents. A study of 50,000 Chicago children under the age of 12 revealed that asthma rates were as high as 44 percent to the southeast and northwest of Pilsen, while the prevalence of asthma within Pilsen was about 10 percent.

PERRO’s Jerry Mead-Lucero is concerned that what data that is available, such as maps plotting asthma cases throughout the city, may be inconclusive, or at worst, misleading.

 “There’s a number of factors to be considered there. First of all, the pollution that comes from these plants doesn’t just stay right here,” Mead-Lucero said. “Although, the closer you are to the plants, the more likely you’re going to be breathing in the particulate pollution of the plants.”

“Asthma itself is a little of a tricky thing,” he added, “because there’s different things that cause asthma, and a lot of asthma is a genetic issue, right? And so you see certain populations in Chicago have a higher genetic predisposition to asthma.”

There is, however, one recent initiative taken on by City officials to try to quantify the health hazard of pollution in the neighborhoods. Spurred by the EPA results of unhealthy lead levels in the Pilsen community and requests by concerned citizens, along with requests from PERRO and Pilsen Alliance, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) took blood samples of nearly 200 Pilsen residents during free lead screenings in early June.

CDPH responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to release the information in late July, but said it was still tabulating data. Organizers await the aggregate results of the lead screening.

One thing that upsets Torres more than the medical conditions in Pilsen is the helplessness that some residents feel about changing their surroundings.

“Pilsen, a lot of people in the community are desensitized, whether it’s because they’ve been invisible for so long, they just don’t know how to attack this issue, or they don’t think they can,” she said. “It’s really sad, and there’s a lot of that in the community. It’s harder than in most communities, and there’s a lot of people who are desensitized. There’s no political representation for them.”
Stuart Dybek, Pilsen
native and recipient
of the MacArthur
"genius grant." Photo
from the MacArthur
foundation website.

Stuart Dybek, a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowship recipient, who explored his childhood in Pilsen in his acclaimed short stories, said he was aware and worried about the issues in his hometown.

“Articles about the local environment have of course caught my attention and concern about the generation growing up there now,” Dybek wrote in a July email, while teaching writing courses in Prague.

Dybek, who was born in 1942, grew up in Pilsen at a time when it had a larger Czech and Polish constituency. It is believed that the neighborhood’s name, Pilsen, was derived from the city of Plzeň in the Czech Republic, although a town named Pilzno also exists in Poland.

One spot of hope has been the Clean Power ordinance, which proponents hope will force Midwest Generation to greatly curb emissions or shut the Crawford and Fisk stations down.

The ordinance requires power plants to limit particulate matter under 10 micrometers to 0.015 pounds per million BTU of heat input in any one hour period. The requirement represents a 90 percent reduction from the current EPA requirements.

Additionally, the ordinance sets a requirement for PM 2.5, which are particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers. The EPA currently has no limit of PM 2.5 emissions, whereas the ordinance requires a limit of 0.010 pounds per million BTU per hour.

“Studies… have shown that there is no safe threshold level for PM or PM 2.5 and there are mortalities and health effects at every level of exposure,” the ordinance is written.

The ordinance would effectively force Midwest Generation to convert the plant into a natural gas facility, or shut it down altogether.

“You would have to stop producing from coal and become a natural gas plant,” said Susan Olavarria, spokesperson and communications director for Midwest Generation.

Midwest Generation officials said converting the plant is no small task, and would require years to complete, as well as a “major, major monetary investment.” And then after the transition is complete, Olavarria said, there are no guarantees that the plant could be profitable. Natural gas, while it reduces emissions down to the requirements of the ordinance, is more expensive than coal, and the power generated from it would be more expensive as well.

More expensive electricity on the market is less marketable, unless the city included in the ordinance a requirement that it buy a share of Fisk and Crawford’s new, cleaner energy.

“It’s obviously a more expensive form of power,” she said. “We are saying we would be happy to become a natural gas plant if the city would be willing to give us a purchase agreement to purchase power from it. Then we’d be happy to do it.”

Another matter is the jobs at stake in the transition.

“The crews and people that have to work in it are not the same employees that work in it now,” Olavarra said. “It takes a different kind of skill set and training to do that.”

Mead-Lucero said he is working on a solution to ensure the workers of the Fisk plant, who are mostly union workers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 15, have a place to work after such a transition. He hopes an amendment can be added to the ordinance which would start a program to retrain the IBEW 15 workers for green jobs.

“We all feel very strongly, particularly in PERRO, but also in the broader coalition as well, there’s a very strong sentiment that we have to come up with a solution to what happens to these workers,” he said. “We’re not going to be happy with these plants shutting down and these workers being left without jobs.”

“So my thought is let’s try to get the unions to say, let’s think about this in the long term,” Mead-Lucero said. “Do you guys want to figure out a way that you workers are going to make sure that they’re ok regardless what happens, regardless what the company decides if we’re going to go with these plans. Or are you just going to stick it out in the short term and just cross your fingers and hope they don’t screw you in the end in 2015 or 2018 or whenever they’re going to do this.”

Although support for the ordinance has resulted in a coalition of 56 organizations, including PERRO, Sierra Club and Pilsen Alliance, and 26 aldermen as cosponsors, delays by the City Council meant the legislation expired along with the 2010 term.

The coalition is optimistic about its prospects this time around, largely due to a mayor that it says is more supportive of this kind of ordinance.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“[Mayor Daley] never wanted to deal with these two plants. He had various initiatives with planters and trees around the neighborhood, and that kind of thing, but when it came to the issue of what to do with the Fisk and Crawford power plants, he was always silent and then behind the scenes, basically working against,” Mead-Lucero said.

“The change now with Rahm Emanuel, I think it’s a very big change actually. He has repeatedly said in one form or another that he recognized it as a problem. He’s not been willing to come out strongly and say he supports the ordinance, and that’s what we’re trying to do now. I think that’s possible.”

The latest from Emanuel’s office, however, indicates the Chicago Clean Power Coalition may not have it so easy in the coming months.

“The administration is currently reviewing options for ensuring that Midwest Generation cleans up Fisk & Crawford or converts the plants to a cleaner fuel. The Clean Power Ordinance may not achieve the quickest clean-up because of the likelihood that the ordinance will spark a long, drawn-out legal battle,” Emanuel’s press office replied in an email statement.

“The Mayor is committed to working with state and federal regulators and the city council to make sure those plants are addressed in the quickest, most effective manner possible.”