The Role of Grassroots Activists in the Closure of the Fisk and Crawford Power Plants

The Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants, long blamed for cardiovascular and respiratory disease in Pilsen and Little Village, will close by the end of 2014 per terms of an agreement with the City of Chicago and Midwest Generation.  This will be the culmination of a long-fought battle by affected area residents to protect their environmental health and safety.  Recently, the Gazette considered the power these activists had in bringing change to their communities.

Grassroots activism and pressure on business and government officials still can work, as groups opposed to the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village have proven. After a decade long battle Midwest Generation, the plants’ owner, announced the dirty duo would be shut down.

When the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) first decided to take on the plants, their chances for victory looked slim. In the 1970s fighting pollution was popular; by the 2000s, large segments of the public supported more energy at any cost, and many did not even believe emissions from plants such as Fisk and Crawford cause climate change.

In addition, the plants provide nearly 200 jobs in a community that desperately needs them. One of the first government officials to come around was Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who since 2003 has been involved in legal action challenging the plants’ operating permits. Madigan sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the permits….

A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People report ranked Crawford as the worst environmental justice offender in the nation, and Fisk third.

In 2009, five environmental groups filed a Clean Air Act lawsuit against Midwest Generation: Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Resources Defense Council, the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Sierra Club. Later that year, another suit was filed, this time by the EPA against the plants, and joined by the U.S.Department of Justice and State of Illinois.

With [local elected officials, including aldermen and Mayor Emanuel] in the fight, the hand writing was on the dirty wall for the plants, and Midwest Generation gave up. We are glad to see these polluting plants, which had been spewing dirty particulate matter in the air since 1903, scheduled to be shut down, but we are concerned about the nearly 200 employees who will lose their jobs and about the site itself. So we are pleased to learn that Edison Mission Group, parent company of Midwest Generation, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union are going to try to ease the transition for these workers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also deserves praise for announcing he will work on a plan for redeveloping the site.

We hope that plan includes new jobs for the displaced workers, site cleanup, and a new use for the old plant sites that features green technology. Closing the plants was a classic example of activists taking a stand and increasing pressure on a business by adding allies from both the public and private sectors until that business had t omeet their demands. We sincerely hope this coalition stays together to finish the job by keeping up the pressure to find employment for the workers and to make sure the Fisk and Crawford sites become productive, revenue and tax generating, and clean and green parts of the community.

The issues relating to the Fisk and Crawford plants are examined in several Roosevelt University seminars, including SUST 210 The Sustainable Future and SUST 310 Energy and Climate Change. For more information on these or any other of our courses, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.

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