Midwest Generation's Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, is seen Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, near Dvorak Park in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. The city's two coal-fired plants will shut down early under a deal between the operator, city officials and environmental groups. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition says Midwest Generation signed an agreement Wednesday to close its Fisk power plant by the end of the year and its Crawford plant by the end of 2014. Chicago is the only large U.S. city with coal-fired power plants operating within its borders. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: April 2, 2012 9:46AM
Somewhere along the line, phrases like “community organizer” and “grass-roots agitation” became punch lines for a joke we’ll never get.
It remains amusing in some circles that President Barack Obama himself was once a community organizer — that epitome of noisy lefty ineffectualness.
But that stuff can work, though the credit often goes elsewhere.
Consider the big news of Wednesday: Mayor Rahm Emanuel has cut a deal with a corporate polluter, Midwest Generation, to close two coal-fired power plants. The Crawford and Fisk plants, in Little Village and Pilsen, are serious public health hazards, according to a 2002 Harvard study, linked to higher rates of asthma, heart attacks and chronic lung disease.
Emanuel deserves credit for the deal. He vowed he’d force Midwest to upgrade or close the plants, and he’s done so. But it was a decade of work by others, from scientists to worried parents, that forced the issue onto the public agenda. They made the case that the plants were dangerous and created the political will to do something about it.
In the late 1990s, a national movement, spearheaded by groups such as the American Lung Association and the Sierra Club, had begun to campaign against “grandfather” clauses in federal clean air regulations that exempted older power plants, such as Crawford and Fisk. That effort dovetailed with new research that documented the health hazards.
All of this found a receptive audience in Little Village and Pilsen, where the lung-destroying smokestacks were neighbors.
Among the groups that took up the fight early on were the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago and the Environmental Law and Policy Center. They wrote letters, lobbied, filed lawsuits and demonstrated. Generally, the media half-ignored them, until they learned to tell their story in the most human terms.
On a fall day in 2004, Dr. Howard Ehrman, of the Little Village group, stood on a street corner and asked a crowd of about 20 neighborhood residents how many of them had asthma or knew someone who did. Every hand shot up.
“Mrs. Sanchez missed work because she’s having an asthma attack,” Ehrman said. “Mr. Cervantes’ son is missing school because of his asthma.”
In 2004, environmentalists sued the EPA for failing to enforce anti-pollution regulations.
In 2006, a group of Columbia College students steam-washed a sidewalk near the Fisk plant to create the outline of a body.
In 2008, activists dressed as Christmas elves handed out candy canes or coal to aldermen, depending on how they were expected to vote on a clean air ordinance.
In 2011, Greenpeace protesters “occupied” the Fisk plant.
And on Feb. 28, 2012, Emanuel announced that the two plants will be closed, meaning Chicago kids can breathe a little easier.
This was a victory for the mayor, but also for grass-roots democracy.