Chicago’s southwest side was home to two of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants—the Fisk and Crawford plants, owned by Midwest Generation. Just a few hundred feet away from the Crawford plant is the vibrant and diverse community of Little Village, a small but densely populated neighborhood of some 100,000 residents, mostly Latino families and children.
Toxic emissions from the smokestacks—unwittingly called “cloud factories” by local kids—would waft over the sky in Little Village, while coal dust from the plants’ stockpile settled onto houses and school grounds. The pollution intensified during the winter and summer, when the plants ramped up operations to fill energy demands—mostly coming from other states.
Meanwhile, residents were suffering high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and a slew of other respiratory illnesses. In fact, a Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable to the plants’ pollution. Residents would rely on nebulizers and oxygen tanks to help them breathe; parents who worried about asthma attacks would keep children from going outside to play. Thousands stayed home from school or missed work every year because they were sick, resulting in educational and economic losses.
Among these residents was Kimberly Wasserman, a Chicana born and raised in Little Village who lived in a house not a mile away from the Crawford plant. In 1998, then a single mother, she rushed her 3-month-old baby to the hospital when he started gasping for air. According to the doctors, her son had suffered an asthma attack, which she later found out, had been triggered by environmental pollution.
Fired up from this experience, the community organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) began going to door to door with her baby in tow, talking to families in the neighborhood who were dealing with similar problems. She explained how their health problems were stemming from the coal plants and convinced parents—some of whom were undocumented immigrants afraid to speak up—that they had a right to live and raise their children in a neighborhood free from toxic pollution.
Keeping these local voices front and center, Wasserman worked with other local community-based organizations to form a strategic alliance with faith, health, labor, and environmental groups and reached out to local policymakers. With limited resources, they mounted a formidable campaign that got residents out to picket and attend public hearings, organize “Toxic Tours” of industrial sites and stage a “Coal Olympics” timed around the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
After a long stall in Chicago politics, whose leaders had long supported the coal industry, the communities’ efforts to shut down the plants gained new momentum in 2011 with the creation of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the election of a new mayor and a new class of aldermen on the City Council.
The coalition pushed efforts to build momentum for the Clean Power Ordinance among local policymakers, and the measure received support from 35 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Faced with expensive requirements to upgrade its pollution controls and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Midwest announced it would shut down the Crawford and Fisk plants.
The coal power plants closed ahead of schedule in the fall of 2012, and LVEJO, in partnership with a community organization in nearby Pilsen, is negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement. The agreement prohibits any fossil fuel industry from operating on the property, and entitles residents to meet the potential new owners, who will be required to present their plans for the site to the community.
Wasserman is also training the next generation of organizers to lead the community in transforming old industrial sites in Little Village into parks and open spaces such as skate parks, soccer fields, and picnic sites where residents can exercise and enjoy the fresh air. Her vision for these spaces is to serve as a community “front porch,” where residents get together to discuss ways to continue improving the neighborhood.
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