Carol Marin: Mayor gets an ‘A’ for asthma fight
CAROL MARIN email@example.com May 11, 2012 8:20PM
Midwest Generation's Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, is seen Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Chicago. | M. Spencer Green~AP
Updated: June 14, 2012 8:14AM
Whatever overall grade you choose to give Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first year in office, when it comes to fighting childhood asthma and air pollution, I’d argue he deserves an “A.”
On Feb. 29, he announced Midwest Generation’s plans for closing of the city’s two coal-fired plants : the Fisk power plant in Pilsen and the Crawford power plant in Little Village. This month, the company moved up the shutdowns to this September.
The significance of this cannot be overstated.
“The strength he brought to clean up or shut down [these plants] got us over the finish line,” Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said Thursday.
“He understood the science and the health behind it,” Wasserman said. “And I think he understood the issue. But to say that it was entirely his office that did it is too much.”
That’s because this battle over coal-fired plants and clean air has taken more than 12 years of relentless work by Wasserman’s group and other organizations, including the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
It is they who painstakingly laid the groundwork.
But it is Emanuel who, unlike his predecessor, took swift action.
For Wasserman, 35, this battle has been deeply personal.
“My son just turned 14,” she said. “He had an asthma attack at three months old and it freaked me out no end. I was 21, a single mom.”
What Wasserman quickly learned was that asthma is not hereditary but rather environmentally induced. And Chicago, according to a Harvard University study in 2001, had one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country. Not to mention, Chicago is the only major American metropolis that still has coal-fired plants operating within city limits.
Wasserman, a first-generation Mexican American, now has three children, two of whom have asthma.
In the Pilsen-Little Village neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southwest Side, asthma rates have been alarmingly high for years for the mostly Hispanic children who live there.
That is not to say that the mayor’s action means the pollution problem is now solved.
“There are more concerns and conversations here around environmental justice,” Wasserman said.
There is the question of who will pay for cleaning up the two plant sites contaminated by coal tar and ash.
There is still pollution from other industries in the area. And there remains the daily, choking exhaust emissions from heavy trucks that roll through the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares.
Pilsen-Little Village remains a “dirty diesel” corridor.
The mayor has appointed Wasserman, along with other business and community leaders, to a task force to study what’s next.
But credit where credit is due.
Though Emanuel consistently labels his many policy initiatives — including revenue-generating speeding cameras — as being solely “for the children,” you could argue that’s not always the case.
But this time around?
It really is.