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Coal, Race and Health: The Chicago Clean Power Ordinance

On September 20, 2011, supporters of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition delivered a petition with over 5,000 signatures to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, asking him to pass the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, following it up with a Roll Beyond Coal! event for the September 24 Moving Planet Day of Action. The Ordinance would reduce particulate matter (soot) and greenhouse gas pollution from Chicago's Fisk and Crawford coal generating stations, and is backed by over 60 community, health, labor and environmental groups.

On September 20, 2011, supporters of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition delivered a petition with over 5,000 signatures to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, asking him to pass the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, following it up with a Roll Beyond Coal! event for the September 24 Moving Planet Day of Action. The Ordinance would reduce particulate matter (soot) and greenhouse gas pollution from Chicago's Fisk and Crawford coal generating stations, and is backed by over 60 community, health, labor and environmental groups.

Perhaps no other plants in the nation better demonstrate the nexus among race, coal and health than Fisk and Crawford. Coal plants are the biggest source of mercury runoff in the US, as well as a host of other naturally occurring heavy metals that can be toxic at concentrated levels. Coal plants also produce 74 percent of US sulfur dioxide pollution, 18 percent of nitrogen oxide pollution (an ingredient of smog) and 85 percent of direct particulate matter 2.5 emissions, all of which negatively affect not only the respiratory system, but also the cardiovascular and nervous systems. The leftover waste was labeled by a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data as the nation's biggest source of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and chemical plants, yet remain, for now, federally unregulated.

And we are not all exposed equally: studies have repeatedly found working class and communities of color far more likely to be sited near a coal plant. A 2011 report by the NAACP, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Indigenous Environmental Network noted that a total of 8.1 million Americans live very close to a coal plant, within three miles, with an average per-capita income of $18,594 – lower than the US average of $21,587. And out of those 8.1 million people, 36.3 percent (2.94 million) are people of color, who make up only 29.2 percent of the US population.

This has health consequences: African-American and Hispanic children in all age groups are significantly more likely to have an asthma diagnosis than non-Hispanic white children, and are almost three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized or die from asthma and respiratory illness linked to air pollution.

When the first studies began showing a concentration of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) like coal plants near working-class and communities of color, some suggested that the presence of LULUs in an area lowers property values, bringing down the per-capita income. In other words, the issue was reducible to economics, not race. Although coal plants and other LULUs have been linked to decreasing housing values and rents, there is still a significant correlation between LULUs and race, even when income is controlled for.

Why? Historic policies and practices of racial discrimination channeled government-backed mortgages and loans to white communities, while “redlining” communities of color and excluding them from such assistance, making the areas more likely to be zoned for industrial use. Thus, even after these discriminatory policies formally fell away, their legacy and often their practices lived on.

This can be seen with the Fisk and Crawford coal plants on the lower west side of Chicago, in the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village. Fisk opened in 1903 and Crawford went online in 1924, under the control of Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), built up by Thomas Edison's protégé Samuel Insull. The plants helped power the growth of Chicago, from its homes to its electric railroad to industry, particularly during World War II and the post-industrial boom.

The plants are also located in heavily populated areas of primarily non-white residents: over 300,000 Chicagoans live within a three-mile radius of Fisk and nearly 400,000 near Crawford, 83 percent of which are non-white with a per-capita income of $15,076 and $11,097, respectively.

The plants have long raised health concerns. In 1970, the Chicago Department of Environmental Control named ComEd the worst polluter in Chicago, accusing the electric company's fossil fuel plants of causing more sulfur pollution than all other companies in the city combined.

Yet, under the 1977 Clean Air Act, the coal-fired plants were exempted from meeting the same requirements as new coal facilities (“grandfathered”), as it was assumed they would soon close down. But, like most plant owners, ComEd continued operating them.

In 1997, Illinois deregulated its electricity and utilities like ComEd had to shed ownership of their plants to enter the market, buying energy from wholesale suppliers rather than generating the power themselves. ComEd sold 16 of its old stations in 1999, the same year the EPA began cracking down on companies for extending the life of old plants without installing pollution controls, as required by New Source Review provisions.

Six of the stations ComEd sold, including Crawford and Fisk, were bought for $4.8 billion by Midwest Generation, created that year as a subsidiary of California-based Edison International.

Under the purchase agreement, Midwest could enter the region's wholesale electricity market – and, by extension, its derivatives market – while ComEd could shed some of its old grandfathered plants and earn some immediate revenue, as the company had recently been ordered to pay $1.34 billion to its customers, due largely to passing on the costs of unnecessary nuclear plants on to them. Midwest agreed to sell power to ComEd under purchase agreements for five years.

Midwest Generation was later accused of taking advantage of deregulated markets to manipulate wholesale electricity prices, much like Enron. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) investigated the company's use of a “high offer” strategy from 2004 to 2006: offering power for sale at a very high rate in the day-ahead markets so that its offers would be rejected, creating demand and inflating the price for its real-time electricity. Midwest said this was actually a risk-hedging strategy. FERC fined Midwest $9 million for misleading the commission and deleting emails during FERC's investigation, but did not release the details of the investigation or the company's activities.

Meanwhile, the old plants Midwest was using to generate its electricity were coming under growing scrutiny. A 2006 Illinois Public Interest Research Group report based on 2002 emissions found 33 percent of all mercury released in Illinois – 2,283 pounds – came from the six grandfathered plants Midwest had bought from ComEd, helping formalize a 2006 state agreement for the company to install mercury controls (Governor Blagojevich's call for a 90 percent reduction in mercury by 2015 – at each plant – eventually won out over the George W. Bush administration's proposed 70 percent reduction by 2018). The state deal also required Midwest to begin complying with an annual emission rate for its nitrogen oxide emissions by 2012 and sulfur dioxide by 2013, and will eventually require pollution controls on some of its coal units by 2018.

Midwest has said if the costs of compliance with pollution controls become too high, it may choose to close the plants, rather than update them. Nearby and down-wind residents, however, say the plant's costs already outweigh any benefits.

A 2010 national report released by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force found that particulate matter air pollution from the plants contribute to 42 premature deaths, 66 heart attacks, over 700 asthma attacks and dozens of cases of chronic bronchitis in the Chicago area each year, findings that echo a 2001 study by the Harvard University School of Public Health. A 2010 National Research Council study estimated that the Fisk and Crawford plants caused more than $127 million in health damages annually, based on 2005 emissions – also discussed in a 2010 Environmental Law and Policy report.

In 2009, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the federal government filed suit against Midwest Generation for upgrading its plants, including Fisk and Crawford, without adding modern pollution controls in violation of New Source Review requirements. A judge dismissed the claim in 2010, saying the violations occurred at the time of construction and that Midwest Generation cannot be liable for the modifications that occurred prior to its ownership of the plants.

After the ruling, the EPA, the State of Illinois, and several environmental action groups filed amended complaints similar to the prior 2009 complaints, but also seeking to add ComEd as a defendant.

There are also questions about whether the plants are needed at all, as Illinois is a net exporter of power. Midwest Generation has said that the plants feed into the inter-state PJM Interconnection and help maintain a stable flow of electricity and prevent disruptions through city power lines. Yet, PJM maintains an installed reserve margin of at least 15 percent over record peak demand, according to the Sierra Club's Midwest Director James Gignac. “The grid operators maintain plenty of additional capacity and are in fact planning for multiple coal units to come off-line in the coming years,” Gignac said. ComEd has said the plants closing down would pose no risk of an electricity shortage or disruptions if the grid were updated, at a cost of $178 million.

Protests against the plants have accelerated in the past decade, as Pilsen and Little Village residents and grassroots environmental-justice groups have engaged in protests, ballot initiatives, street theater, and other direct actions (including Greenpeace activists scaling one of the plants to paint “Quit Coal” on it), calling on Midwest to either lower pollution from the plants or shut them down.

Much of their focus has shifted to the local level. In April 2010, the Clean Power Ordinance was introduced by Chicago lawmakers to set pollution standards at the plants. The measure gained support from a majority of the City Council, but was denied a formal committee hearing until April 2011, when a vote was deferred. The measure was reintroduced this July. Right now, 31 City Council members have signed on as co-sponsors of the Chicago Clean Power ordinance; only 26 votes are needed for the ordinance to become law, leading to heightened community actions for its passage.

Midwest opposes the measure and posted a study on its web site stating that other areas in Chicago have more asthma than the areas surrounding Fisk and Crawford and that asthma can be linked to a variety of factors beyond coal plants. Others say that the company paid environmental consultants to challenge the health reports on the plants and recruited lobbyists and a public relations firm to influence members of the City Council to vote against the Ordinance.

Midwest also maintains that the city lacks the authority to regulate the coal plants and that the ordinance is unneeded because of its 2006 agreement with the state, as well as impending EPA coal regulations. Yet, supporters of the ordinance say that many Congressional representatives are actively trying to delay or outright prohibit impending EPA regulations (limits on ground-level ozone were recently delayed) and that the company has been exempt from existing public health regulations for too long. The company's 2010 Annual Report states, “Midwest Generation intends to defer final decisions [regarding pollution controls] about particular units for the maximum time available.”

Nearby residents and activists say waiting for the maximum time available is unacceptable and appears to have the support of the mayor, regarded as critical for passage of the ordinance. During its reintroduction, Mayor Emanuel said, “We are paying a health care cost as a city because of the plants. I want [Midwest Generation] as a company to be a responsible citizen to the people of the city of Chicago.”

To learn more about the plants, the ordinance or how to get involved, visit here or here.

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