Pilsen Gets Environmental Justice


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen and Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

Dvorak Park is a very grassy, wide expanse of trees and benches, a playground for young children with an outdoor pool located in the Pilsen neighborhood, which is home to many Mexican immigrants. Rising above the park is the tall, light-colored brick smokestack of the Fisk coal power plant. Next to the smokestack is the red brick building where coal was burned to produce electricity for 109 years.
Since 1903, the plant has provided power for Chicago. And for many years, it was the number one source of pollution in the city, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune.
Jerry Mead-Lucero is a founding member and organizer of the group Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reformation Organization (PERRO). We met with Mead-Lucero in August 2012 on the day after the Fisk power plant had been closed and the Crawford coal-burning power plant a few miles away in the Little Village neighborhood was scheduled to close the next week.
There have been 55 premature deaths each year linked to the power plant, along with hundreds of asthma attacks and people hospitalized because of pollution from the plant, according to a study by a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2001. Respiratory issues are frequently caused by coal, fly ash, soot, mercury, lead (which is a neurotoxin) and other particles emitted from the coal plant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mead-Lucero said the coal plant closing is a big victory for the community but they are still going to keep fighting for a cleaner and healthier neighborhood.
Now PERRO’s challenge is to make sure the site is cleaned up and re-used in a way that is good for the community.
“There’s a question of what to do with the property, the next redevelopment,” Mead-Lucero said. “It’s located near green space. These are industrial and commercial properties, so not all of it will be redeveloped.”
Watching what happens to the site is especially important since the neighborhood is a working class, mostly Latino/Mexican immigrant neighborhood that has been experiencing gentrification. They want to make sure the redevelopment of the site doesn’t contribute more to gentrification.
They also want to make sure the plant doesn’t pose any more health risks. The plant has asbestos in the buildings, according to Mead-Lucero, which needs to be removed before tearing the buildings down.
Mead-Lucero said that the fight against the power plant is an example of the topic of environmental justice, and the fact that it was causing pollution in the working class Latino/Mexican immigrant community is an example of racism and discrimination based on class. PERRO is also still involved in fighting other polluters in the neighborhood.
The H. Kramer Company is a lead smelter near the power plant. PERRO has been fighting for many years to get the company to clean up. Because of PERRO’s efforts, they have started to decorate and plant flowers now. PERRO also did testing of the soil and found lead in it at high levels. H. Kramer was sued and required to reduce pollution. Tests by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also found high levels of lead in the air nearby and the agency required company to make $8,000 worth of improvements.
Another of PERRO’s efforts is a small park and garden called the Mary Zepeda Native Garden located in the Pilsen neighborhood on 17th and Loomis streets. The garden, created on an unused lot, consists of a mural and a fence that were both painted by a local artist named Hector Duarte and local students. The mural shows the Fisk coal plant with butterflies flying around it. The garden was also filled with native plants including milkweed, monarch butterflies, sunflowers and bees. There’s a gardening group that keeps the garden in good shape. The Mary Zepeda Garden is used as an area to educate people on the environment and is a place where young children can play and be safe.
The Fisk plant, H. Kramer and the Zepeda Garden show that when people come together around a common issue, they can really have the power to make positive changes.


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