Lead and Coal Plants in Pilsen

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Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our first-ever Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

A coal-fired power plant in the Pilsen neighborhood. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

On May 11, angry and disappointed residents gathered at Casa Aztlan in Pilsen to hear about the risks from the Fisk coal plant and the H. Kramer brass smelter in their neighborhood.

Forty deaths a year and 550 emergency room visits are caused by Fisk and the city’s other coal plant in Little Village, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The coal plants were “grandfathered” in under the Clean Air Act that was signed in 1970. Grandfathered means it’s been there for a long time so it doesn’t have to equal up to the same standards as coal plants built these days.

Now a law is proposed that 25 aldermen are supporting which could force the power plants to shut down. The group Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) is trying to pass the ordinance.

At the meeting, residents said Ald. Danny Solis should stick to his promises since he won the run-off election in April after promising he would shut down the coal plants, or force them to clean up their emissions.

People at the meeting loudly questioned why Solis was not there personally and yelled at the representative he had sent, Steve Stults. They were treating him badly because they didn’t want him there, they wanted the alderman. Raker said Solis could not attend because of a scheduling conflict but is very committed to the issue.

Stacy Raker, a spokesperson for Solis, said the alderman will definitely keep his promise and that the ordinance will be reintroduced in City Council on July 28.

“The coal plant helps people in Pilsen by employing individuals who are providing for families and providing a backup power source to various locations in the city and the throughout the Midwestern region,” Raker said by email in response to my questions. “Regardless of the plant’s benefits however, the health risks are too great to allow the plant to remain open with such limited regulation. Therefore, Alderman Solis is wholeheartedly supporting the Clean Power Ordinance.”

At the meeting, a lawyer invited people to join a class action lawsuit if they live within a mile of the power plant. He is trying to support us and trying to educate us. He has a 16-year-old daughter so he cares about the air quality.

The Fisk plant was built in 1903 and it is the second largest lead emitter in Chicago. Pollution from the power plant is bad because it can get in your lungs. Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago cited studies showing Latino kids are 60 percent more likely to get asthma and three times as likely as white kids to die from asthma.

The particles can go straight to your lungs and into different parts of your body, Urbaszewski explained.

A third of African American kids have asthma and their asthma rates have increased 50 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to Urbaszewski.

Jerry Mead Lucero, a member of PERRO, showed a map of Pilsen at the meeting and pointed out the Fisk power plant at 111 W. Cermak Ave. and H. Kramer right nearby. He described how big piles of soot from coal accumulate on windows and cars in Pilsen.

Lucero said H. Kramer was the second worst lead polluter in all of Cook County. Lucero described how H. Kramer made some improvements by 2008 after the community started making demands in 2005.

An expert from the Chicago Department of Public Health, Dr. Cortland J. Lohff, said lead is dangerous for kids. He described soil testing in Pilsen that showed one sample was very high. Dr. Lohff said kids put their fingers in their mouths and some houses that are old have lead in them, so the kids pick up lead on their fingers and then put their fingers in their mouths. Lead can also be in the air.

An air monitor was put on top of a local elementary school, Perez Elementary, and it found lead levels more than three times as high as safe levels – in some months 10 times as high.

Elizabeth Wallace, a lawyer with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, said the office is working with H. Kramer to get them to reduce their lead emissions.

One of the speakers noted that some of the plumes people see coming out of factories and the coal plant in Pilsen are steam and aren’t dangerous. They also talked about point sources and non-point sources. Point sources are factories or specific places pollution comes out. Non-point sources are roads.

Charley Parnell, a spokesman for Midwest Generation, which owns the Fisk plant, said all the attention shouldn’t be focused on the coal plant since there are other sources of pollution in Pilsen.

“If air quality is to improve, we need to reduce emissions from all sources; cars, trucks, buses, trains, airplanes, construction, manufacturing, etc. and each of those sources must make the same types of strides that have been made at these two plants,” Parnell said by email.

When I asked whether workers are affected by the coal plant, Parnell said by email, “We have many employees who were raised in the communities near the plants and who are raising their families there now. They are proud of the environmental improvements we’ve made, they are not afraid to raise their families there, they do not feel at risk working at these plants. I live about 15 blocks from Fisk Station, and have a 2-year-old son. My family and the families of our employees and our neighbors have benefited from the existence of these plants. Coal plants like Fisk and Crawford account for nearly 50 percent of the electricity we use in Illinois. Without plants like these, we would not have the benefit of an affordable and reliable supply of electricity which everyone in our community benefits from having.”

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