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Something in the Air

Pollution from two power plants on the near south side causes dozens of premature deaths and thousands of asthma attacks a year, say Harvard researchers. So why has a city ordinance that would require a cleanup been mired in committee for more than a year

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Trips to the emergency room are a regular part of life for Gladys and Miguel Martinez, a young couple raising their family in Pilsen. Their three children--three-year-old Alexis, four-year-old Michael, and five-year-old Ariel--all have serious asthma, compounded by occasional bouts of pneumonia. For a time Michael was going to the ER twice a week, though since the family got a nebulizer at home their trips have grown a little less frequent.

"Michael's the worst. We really worry about him," said Gladys, 22, a supervisor at a thrift store in Bridgeport. "He has trouble breathing and has a runny nose 24-7, even in the summer."

"They can't run around and play like they want to, because they'll get sick," said Miguel, 25, who's working toward his GED.

The family's complaints aren't unusual in their neighborhood. "We see lots and lots of asthma here," said Carmen Velasquez, executive director of the Alivio Medical Center, a nonprofit clinic that serves some 16,000 patients a year in Pilsen and the surrounding communities.

Of course you'll hear the same story from health workers in almost any lower-income urban neighborhood--asthma, which has puzzled experts by turning epidemic even as the nation's general air quality has improved, takes a disproportionate toll in those areas. Researchers are looking at everything from cockroach droppings to psychosocial stress as possible causes. But Pilsen and Little Village, respectively, are home to the Fisk and Crawford coal-burning power plants. And in 2001, after conducting a study of nine older Illinois power plants, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that pollution from these two plants was responsible for approximately 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits, and 41 premature deaths every year. The study also found that "in general, per capita health risks were greater closer to the power plants."

Fisk, at 1111 W. Cermak, was built in 1903 and its current generating system was built in 1959; Crawford, at 3501 S. Pulaski, was built in 1929 and its two generating systems date back to 1958 and 1961, though both plants have been upgraded numerous times since then. As a result of utilities deregulation, in December 1999 both were purchased from Commonwealth Edison by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International that now sells the electricity back to Com Ed's parent company, Exelon (the two Edisons are not related). Together the two plants supply a considerable portion of Chicago's electricity, generating enough to serve about a million homes at any given time. Residents can't picture Little Village and Pilsen without them; some of them are even employed at the plants. But they would like them to be better neighbors.

On election day last month, residents in two precincts in Pilsen and Little Village said as much in a vote on a nonbinding referendum on the proposed Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, which would impose mandatory emissions caps on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and mercury to be met by January 2006. The plants would be required to submit emissions reports every January 31 for the previous year. For every ton of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, every ten tons of carbon dioxide, and every pound of mercury over the limits, they would be fined $1,000.

Meeting the proposed limits would mean an emissions reduction of about 90 percent from 2001, according to Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

In the 22nd Ward's 13th precinct, which is in Little Village, more than 86 percent of those who voted on the ordinance were in favor of it. In the 25th Ward's second precinct, in Pilsen, the figure was almost 90 percent. But the City Council appears to be no closer to addressing their concerns today than when the ordinance was proposed--more than a year ago, in February 2002.

The referendum was the doing of a couple dozen tenacious activists from the Green Party's Pilsen/Southwest Side Local and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. They'd hoped to get it on the ballot in more precincts, but since they would have had to collect signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters in each, they decided to focus on two symbolic ones.

But the ordinance itself, the most sweeping of a handful of clean-power laws proposed by states and municipalities across the country, was introduced by 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke. According to the American Lung Association, it is the only one to cover the four major problem emissions from fossil-fuel plants.

Burke is considered by some to be an unlikely champion. The power plants are not in his ward, and he is not known for allying himself with progressive or independent forces within city politics. He is well-known for allying himself with Mayor Daley--who, while he's indicated that he supports federal regulation of air quality, has yet to take a position on the city ordinance. Air-quality issues seem to be a high priority for the alderman, whose father died of lung cancer in 1968: he's also the sponsor of the tougher of the two measures currently being considered by the council to ban smoking in public places, and last fall introduced legislation seeking to ban a carcinogenic dry-cleaning solvent. (That legislation is now being rewritten to address the concerns of smaller dry-cleaning outfits, who've said they would be forced out of business by a blanket ban.)

Burke's ward, located on the southwest side and traditionally thought of as white ethnic, is now 75 percent Latino, thanks in part to remapping. This has led some to theorize that Burke has a newfound interest in paying attention to issues affecting Latinos around the city. "I thought [his sponsorship of the Clean Power Ordinance] was kind of surprising, but times change and people change," said Ambrosio Medrano, who recently attempted to reclaim his seat as 25th Ward alderman, which he lost after he was convicted in the Silver Shovel scandal. (Medrano supports the ordinance--but he wasn't elected.)

But Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and alderman of the 44th Ward from 1971 to '79, said he thinks Burke's motives are both genuine and in character. "On one hand he's a typical machine politician, but he's very different from your average alderman," said Simpson, who covered Burke's relationship with Daley in Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps, his 2001 history of the City Council. He noted that while Burke is generally loyal to Daley, they also have a long-standing political rivalry.

"Most aldermen don't offer citywide legislation or legislation with impact beyond their ward. But Burke always does that. He has a lot of clout so he can do it. [Having been in office since 1969], he predates the mayor and almost all the other aldermen....He's responsive to issues that interest him and are brought to his attention."

The ordinance, which Midwest Generation opposes vehemently, has not been popular with any other aldermen. While few have gone so far as to speak out against it, no one besides Burke has stood up for it in public. "Various aldermen told us quietly that they support it, but no one seems to want to go against the mayor," said Greens membership steward Dorian Breuer.

Danny Solis, alderman for the 25th Ward, has failed to return numerous calls from the Green Party, members said, and he declined to take a position on the ordinance after meeting with the ALA's Urbaszewski. Solis didn't return calls for this story, and neither did 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz, though members of the Green Party say he has told them he's for the ordinance. Breuer says they've also received pledges of support from new 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon and Willye B. White, who's up for 6th Ward alderman in the April 1 runoff election.

Burke himself declined to comment on the ordinance for this article. His press secretary, Donal Quinlan, says the alderman can't take every media request.

The ordinance is stuck in the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection & Public Utilities, chaired by 19th Ward alderman Virginia Rugai. Norine Hughes, a Rugai spokeswoman, said the committee is reviewing it and trying to work out a "compromise" with Midwest Generation. There is no projected date for a committee vote, and no public hearings have been held.

The Green Party got involved last spring after a large demonstration by high school students in support of the ordinance. Over the summer members became increasingly frustrated with the lack of momentum. "It was supposed to only take one or two months [to bring it to a vote], but here we are at the same stage as a year ago, and meanwhile 40 more people have died," said Breuer, referring to the Harvard estimates. "All this foot-dragging means these things are still belching 24 hours a day."

In November activists began gathering signatures to put the referendum on the February ballot. "We talked to literally hundreds of people, and only a few didn't support the ordinance," said Greens outreach coordinator Jerry Mead. "And here we were, a few white guys walking around a mostly Latino neighborhood."

One of the people they spoke to was Maria Castro, a 24-year-old UIC student who grew up in Pilsen and lives a few blocks from the Fisk plant. "I've always had colds, and when I was 17 I was diagnosed with asthma," said Castro. "My cousin in the neighborhood has asthma too, and the kids downstairs are always sick. Before I never thought about it that much, but then I read about Love Canal and started wondering, Maybe [the plant] has something to do with it."

In the weeks before the ballot referendum, Midwest Generation sent a letter to all voters in the two precincts asking them not to fall for the "extreme politics" of proponents of the ordinance and stating that it would have to close the plants if the ordinance passed.

"The question on your election ballot sounds innocent enough, but it is very misleading," it read. "It doesn't tell you about the tremendous improvements our plants have made. It doesn't recognize that even though asthma and other serious illnesses have been increasing, emissions from our plants have been decreasing. That means that pollution from sources like cars and diesel trucks and buses should be of greater concern."

Since buying the plants, the letter said, Midwest Generation is "proud to have spent more than $35 million to reduce pollution from Fisk and Crawford by more than 50 percent." Spokesman Doug McFarlan elaborated, saying emissions of nitrogen oxides (a major component of ozone smog) have decreased by 60 percent and sulfur dioxide (a major asthma trigger) by 30 percent. There are currently no federal limits on mercury (though President Bush has spoken in favor of them) or carbon dioxide emissions.

The company has not done a study or come up with exact numbers regarding the cost of meeting the proposed requirements, McFarlan said, but he believes it would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars. The standards would be impossible to meet with a coal-burning plant," he said. "You couldn't just retrofit it--you'd have to start from scratch. We have over 200 employees who would be laid off. If these plants are shut down, we'd need to import energy for the city."

Utilities deregulation, which was legislated in Illinois in late 1997 and is still being phased in, means that if Midwest Generation were forced to raise its prices, Exelon could opt to buy power from a plant in some less-regulated area. "The ordinance would be putting a Chicago employer at a big disadvantage," said McFarlan. "These utilities have choices--we're competing in a national market."

"Midwest Generation paid a lot of money for these plants and they want to recoup it," the ALA's Urbaszewski said. "The way to do that is to run them as cheaply as possible. The problem is, there is always a cost. Does the company pay the cost for cleaning up the plant, or does the public pay in increased health costs, pain, and suffering?"

He said that Fisk and Crawford could and should convert to either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and cleaner coal-burning technology. He admitted that it costs three to five times more to produce the same amount of heat with gas instead of coal, and that gas prices are known for extreme fluctuation. But "it's not like no one's ever done this before," he said. "We'd like to see Fisk and Crawford do what Grand Tower did."

Grand Tower Power Station, in downstate Jackson County, was built in 1924 as a coal-burning plant and updated several times in the 50s, much like Fisk and Crawford. It converted to natural gas in 2001, thereby reducing its sulfur dioxide emissions a thousandfold. Leigh Morris, a spokesman for Ameren, the plant's parent company, said that while the conversion was a success, "I wouldn't want to make generalizations. Every power plant is unique."

Urbaszewski said the Fisk plant is already equipped to burn gas, so it wouldn't even require major retrofitting. McFarlan confirmed that Fisk is so equipped, but said "you'd still need to change all the infrastructure."

Midwest Generation technically meets federal clean-air standards now, but that's only because the federal Clean Air Act exempts coal-burning plants built before 1977 from current emissions standards. When renovations beyond "routine maintenance" are done, however, the old plants must upgrade to meet the new standards.

"Coal-burning plants are not built to last forever," said Urbaszewski. "The main parts in the plants are over 40 years old. They will have to be replaced soon."

But President Bush, he added, is in the process of "gutting" the Clean Air Act. His proposed Clear Skies Initiative, touted as an environmental measure by his administration but widely criticized by clean-air proponents, would effectively make the exemptions on coal-burning plants permanent by expanding the definition of routine maintenance to include even ongoing multimillion-dollar upgrades and expansions.

"What Bush is saying is that everything is routine maintenance, so you can rebuild a plant piece by piece and call it routine maintenance and not have to meet pollution controls," said Urbaszewski.

Some states, including Illinois, have passed legislation that empowers the state EPA to request that the state pollution control board pass stricter emissions standards. Illinois' EPA is expected to investigate the matter and file a report sometime between this September and next. But proponents of the city ordinance say there is no guarantee tighter state standards will ever be put in place, so an actual binding city law will be a surer way of reducing emissions and would hold power plants accountable in ways the proposed new federal legislation wouldn't.

At a February 18 forum sponsored by the Greens at Decima Musa, a Mexican restaurant in Pilsen, Danny Solis was a no-show. Antonio Zotta, another 25th Ward aldermanic hopeful, blasted him for his absence and handed out campaign disclosure documents that showed Solis had accepted a $5,000 contribution from Midwest Generation via the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization (he's the committeeman).

At the Decima Musa event, many residents spoke out in English and Spanish about their families' health problems and pleaded with Urbaszewski and the aldermanic candidates to force Midwest Generation to change its ways.

"Look how many schools we have right in this area. This is a whole generation being affected," said Rosario Rabiela, the restaurant's co-owner. "We're going to war against someone making chemical weapons, yet our government is supporting these plants. They're talking about disarmament--disarm this stuff!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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