Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The People VS the Bottom Line - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 3/4

“Decisions regarding whether or not to proceed with the above projects or other approaches to compliance remain subject to a number of factors, such as market conditions, regulatory and legislative developments, and forecasted commodity prices and capital and operating costs applicable at the time decisions are required or made… Due to existing uncertainties about these factors, Midwest Generation intends to defer final decisions about particular units for the maximum time available. 
- Excerpt from page 92 of Midwest Generation’s 2010 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, form 10K.

NOTE: The following is the third installment 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." Part one, "Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder," is available here. Part two, "Old Problems, New Attention" is available here. A visualization describing Pilsen's struggle with pollution is here.

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

In a dimly-lit space in the back of a Pilsen café known for its fruit smoothies, a dozen Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) activists and organizers huddled over coffees and discussed upcoming plans for an annual community festival, Fiesta del Sol.

A Pilsen tradition for the last 39 years, Fiesta del Sol is an event featuring local art vendors, Mexican food, carnival rides, soccer games, and a chance for local organizations to boost donations and deliver information to the public.

This year, as in years past, Midwest Generation was one of the lead corporate sponsors for the event, and included among a group of sponsors under the banner “Pilsen Neighborhood Community Counts.”

“Let me just say one thing,” Jerry Mead-Lucero said. “There was some discussion about whether we should do something at the Fiesta because of the whole connection with Midwest generation. What I’ve been suggesting is I don’t want to completely piss off Pilsen Neighbors about having a booth there, so I’m not recommending we do something like a direct action in a Fiesta.”

“But what I think we are talking about doing stenciling with anti-pollution slogans, so that everyone coming into the fiesta is basically going to have to walk past this anti-pollution slogan as they’re going into the fiesta,” he said. “There were some ideas about a protest; I think that’s a bit much.”

After Mead-Lucero finished, Dorian Breuer, one of PERRO’s original founders, noted that the meeting had gone an hour past its scheduled time. The café staff were mopping up and placing chairs on tables.

“What my understanding was our whole focus was on new members, new people, to almost have an open discussion about what are people’s concerns, what do they want to talk about, and not really about PERRO stuff,” Breuer said.

Sara Trowbridge, a PERRO volunteer, wasn’t sure if that was how they had planned to go about their monthly meetings.

“I thought our general meetings were to report facts,” she said.

“What happened though was, a new person might show up and listen for two hours,” Breuer said. “That’s what was happening. And we had two people here and they left.”

PERRO had formed in 2004, but was still perfecting its method of conducting public, monthly meetings where people could both voice their concerns and learn more about the group. Its purpose, however, was well established.

“PERRO believes all people have the right to live in a clean and healthy environment, regardless of their race and class,” the PERRO website, pilsenperro.org, stated. “Its mission is to spread awareness about this concept of environmental justice and make Pilsen a healthier place to live, work, and raise children.”

Ask Pilsen resident Mead-Lucero what “environmental justice” is, and you’ll get an answer like this: “Obviously at the root of it is a concern about environmental problems or contamination or pollution. That’s definitely the key area of all of this.”

“But it’s definitely broader than that,” he said.

The long answer, Mead-Lucero said, is that certain communities are impacted by environmental problems more than others, especially low-income, minority neighborhoods.

“And there’s a reason for that,” Mead-Lucero said. “It’s related to issues of institutional racism, it’s related to issues of just historic ways these issues develop.”

Despite comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population, more than seven out of 10 Latinos in America lived in counties that violated federal pollution standards in 2002, according to a report by the League of United Latin American Citizens. According to the 2010 census, 82 percent of Pilsen’s 35,769 residents consider themselves Hispanic.

That demographic, along with the fact that the neighborhood has been traditionally working-class, low-wage earners puts Pilsen at a political disadvantage, Mead-Lucero said. Eighteen percent of Pilsen households use food stamps, and thirty percent of residents live in poverty, according to the 2009 American Community Survey.

Combine that with the fact that since Fisk’s construction in 1903, urban sprawl has turned the neighborhood from dominantly industrial to a mix of industrial and residential, and you have the elements of the pollution problem today.

“The Fisk plant had been there for 100 years now largely because there isn’t the political will or the pressure to do anything about it because it’s not a neighborhood that has a great deal of political power or influence, as compared to wealthier, white neighborhoods in the north side,” he said.

“We were talking about communities that are already marginalized because of income, because of race, because of immigration status,” he added. “There’s this problem, then, that those communities are suffering more with more environmental contamination than other communities. To address these issues, we also have to address other issues like political disempowerment, economic disempowerment, and so on.”

He pointed to the example of A. Finkle & Sons, a foundry that makes moldings for American and foreign car manufactures, which had been located on the north side of Chicago, near the Lincoln Park neighborhood, for more than 100 years. That was, until political pressure from residents forced it to move to another location in 2009.

In 2004, the Clean Air Task Force released study, which used the peer-reviewed methodology approved by the National Science Foundation and used by the EPA, that demonstrated the two plants contributed to 42 deaths annually.

“Those who look up Cook County will see it ranked worst in the nation for dangerous air pollution, based on 2005 data. The Tribune also found Chicago was among the 10 worst cities in the U.S.” wrote the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “The factory with the highest risk score in Chicago is a steel mill on the edge of upscale Lincoln Park, a neighborhood where it isn't uncommon to find people buying organic dog food.”

Incidentally, the new Finkle & Sons foundry is located on the impoverished south side of the city.

“From the early ‘70s until 2000, the small, predominantly African-American neighborhood on the far South Side was home to a number of manufacturing industries, including a detergent factory and Jay’s Potato Chips plant. But in recent times Burnside residents have seen these companies close or move away, taking the middle-class jobs that once defined their community with them,” wrote Chicago Weekly in 2009.

“In light of the neighborhood’s depressed economic situation, it is no surprise that A. Finkl & Sons met a warm reception when it announced it would relocate to Burnside after considering several other sites outside Chicago.”

On Monday mornings, Mead-Lucero can be heard on Labor Express Radio, a one-hour radio program focused on local, national and international current events and labor issues. It’s broadcasted from WLUW, the radio station of Loyola University.

“It’s not just news about strikes or the unions,” he said. “It’s pretty broad, and about issues facing working people. So economy, jobs, housing, immigration, all kinds of issues that we are dealing with on the program.”

The rest of his time is divided between a job hunt (Mead-Lucero lost a teaching job in June 2010) and leading PERRO. Like his radio show, PERRO’s goals are similarly broad.

“We’re an environmental justice organization, so our vision isn’t simply the issue of various polluters or environmental contamination. Environmental issues are part of social and economic issues in a broader sense. We’re concerned about gentrification in the neighborhood, that’s a big issue, people are getting pushed out because of the rising property values and rent and so on,” he said.

A large part of the social injustice, according to Mead-Lucero and other community organizers, is that local residents receive none of the monetary benefits of the generating station, yet receive the brunt of the environmental costs of the plant – what an economist might call an “externalities.”

Midwest Generation receives the coal for all of its seven coal power plants from southern Wyoming mines, a shipment which varies between 17.5 million to 19.5 million tons a year, according to its annual 10K filings with the SEC.

But once the coal is sent to Fisk and Crawford to be burned, the energy is sold on the open market. The largest purchasers of the plant’s electricity are utility companies in the eastern part of the country, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

For this, and the rest of its utilities, Midwest Generation posted a net income of $215 million off total revenue of $1.47 billion in 2010.

Corporate factsheets about the plants state the plants contribute $2.5 million in property taxes to the city, and that Midwest Generation donates profits to the Pilsen YMCA, local festivals and other charitable organizations, Mead-Lucero said it simply doesn’t make up for the toll to his community.

The scientific research supports his opinion.

Since a 2002 Harvard study that demonstrated the two plants contributed to 41 premature deaths annually, ELPC estimated that Chicago residents have had to shoulder approximately $750 million to $1 billion in healthcare costs because of the plants’ deleterious effects. Every year that passes, residents have to suffer another $127 million or more in damages, the organization said.
Lavey testifying before the Chicago City Council in Februrary on
the city's proposed clean power ordinance.

“I’m going to talk about money,” Warren Lavey, senior law fellow at the ELPC, testified before the Chicago City Council, during a February 14, 2011 hearing on the clean power ordinance.

“Money. Do I have your attention?”

During his testimony, Lavey cited a U.S. EPA finding that bringing old power plants into compliance would yield a health benefit of 50 to 100 times the cost of installing pollution controls.

Lavey wasn’t involved in the 2002 Harvard study, but ELPC heavily cited the study in its testimony and in its press releases.

Midwest Generation disagrees with the Harvard study, which it said used outdated statistics.

“The data for this study were gathered nearly a dozen years ago, before Midwest generation even owned these plants,” wrote the company on fiskandcrawford.com, a website promoting the power plants. “Its conclusions are completely outdated, and it fails to take into account the substantial emissions reductions over the past decade by Midwest Generation – both voluntary and mandated by the U.S. EPA and the State of Illinois. This old study should have no bearing on the current debate, even though those who want the plants shut down continue to use it as a political tool.”

Susan Olavarria, spokesperson and director of communications at Midwest Generation, said in a telephone interview that its power plants were not only compliant with U.S. EPA law, but also the stricter Illinois EPA regulations.

“Illinois basically leads the nation, with some of the most aggressive regulations and requirements in the country, of any coal plant. It’s why when we met with the Illinois EPA as part of that requirement that was given to us in 2006, we began working on that work and were one of the first in the country to install the first mercury controls ever. We did that work back in 2008. The Obama administration, the U.S. EPA, just issued those mercury rules in March, and we already meet them. And that’s only because, again, because Illinois has been pretty aggressive on this very issue,” Olavarria said.

“Nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide reductions, also again, part of our agreement with the state of Illinois, is something that the USEPA issued just a couple weeks ago. And we were already on pace to meeting those requirements as well, again, because of the aggressive Illinois EPA rules and requirements for us to meet these standards sooner. We’re on par to meet nitrogen oxide reduction requirements for 2012, and will also be meeting the sulfur dioxide control requirements,” she said.

But more recent research doesn’t show the death toll from Fisk and Crawford decreasing. In 2004, the Clean Air Task Force released study, which used the peer-reviewed methodology approved by the National Science Foundation and used by the EPA, that demonstrated the two plants contributed to 42 deaths annually. Meanwhile, Cook County as a whole suffered 120 premature deaths from those and other coal-fired power plants nearby.

Mead-Lucero wasn’t content with relying on those reports, and instead embarked on a fact-finding mission that would change the dynamic between the polluters and Pilsen permanently.

Fisk isn’t the only point source contributing to pollution in the neighborhood. While the Fisk station emitted about 149 pounds of lead in 2009, that same year, H. Kramer, a smelter also located in Pilsen, dumped 242 pounds of the material. In 2005, PERRO members began testing the soil in Pilsen and around the H. Kramer plant by sending samples to the Illinois EPA.

“One of the samples that was collected right next to the plant had something like 92 times what was considered a safe level of lead in the soil,” Mead-Lucero recalled. “And so it was very disconcerting stuff. So we took that to the EPA, and spurred them to do their own testing.”

The IEPA’s testing resulted in a $10,000 fine for the company in 2006, and forced H. Kramer to install $500,000 in pollution control equipment.

When the state of Illinois announced that it would place additional air quality monitors at more than a dozen locations across the state in 2010, PERRO lobbied to have one located near the H. Kramer plant.

After some “back and forth,” Mead-Lucero said, the IEPA chose to monitor Pilsen’s air from the top of Perez elementary school – a fine arts magnet school located a tenth of a mile from the H. Kramer plant and about half of a mile from the Fisk station. More than 99 percent of the school’s 404 students are from low-income families, and 98 percent are Hispanic, according to data from Chicago Public Schools.

It then disappointed, but didn’t surprise, Mead-Lucero when those air monitors recorded high enough lead levels for the EPA to declare part of the Pilsen neighborhood a “nonattainment” zone for lead.

“Even at low levels, exposure to lead can impair a child’s IQ, learning capabilities and memory,” the EPA wrote in a press release. “Although airborne lead levels have dropped dramatically in the United States since the transition to unleaded gas, the latest science indicates the stronger standards are necessary to protect children.”

The EPA specifically singled out H. Kramer as the source of the lead pollution, and has ordered the smelter to reduce lead levels to acceptable levels by 2013.

It was a small victory for the neighborhood, but many more obstacles still stand in the way. In the meantime, PERRO and other community organizations are continuing to put pressure on Midwest Generation to reduce emissions of particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides and other pollutants from the Fisk and Crawford plants.