CHICAGO- "Words can't express how I'm feeling today," said Leila Mendez, fighting back tears of joy. "In 1998 I almost died because of that smokestack behind me. When you unite a people, you win."
Mendez was speaking at a victory rally celebrating the closure of two coal burning generating plants in this city's predominantly Mexican American Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. The plants have been spewing deadly pollution on residents for nearly 100 years.
The plants are considered two of the dirtiest in the nation and the single largest source of greenhouse gas emission in Chicago.
The city of Chicago, Chicago Clean Power Coalition and Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, announced an agreement that would close the Fisk Power Plant in Pilsen at the end of 2012 and the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village by the end of 2014.
The victory comes after 10 years of mounting struggle by residents and the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, which embraces over 60 community groups. "We made phone calls, circulated petitions, came to rallies, went to city hall, so that today we can say we did it! " said Rosalie Mancera, who lived between the plants for 30 years.
A key turning point in the struggle occurred when Alderman Joe Moore introduced the Clean Power Ordinance, which rallied support citywide, into city council two years ago.
Midwest Generation had thwarted opposition by buying off local elected officials. Pilsen Alderman Daniel Solis was the largest recipient of campaign contributions from the company and kept silent until community opposition nearly cost him his job.
The plants were last updated in the 1950s and 1960s and continuously violated clean air standards. An agreement had been reached between the company and state regulators to clean up or close the plants by 2018.
"I'm also thinking of the people that died. 40 people a year died. And I can never forget them especially because I could have been one of them. But I believe I lived so I could fight and see the day this was shut down," said Mendez.
According to Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, pollution from the plants caused over 400 premature deaths over the last 10 years and triggered 7,000 asthma and 600 heart attacks.
"There are people who fought day and night when nobody else believed in us and stayed on this campaign. We thank you for putting yourselves and your families on the line," said Kim Wasserman, a leader of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Wasserman became active in the fight after pollution from the plants triggered an asthma attack in her four-year-old son.
The two closures were announced with of seven other coal generating plant closures. Since January 2010, over 100 coal powered generating plants have either been retired (executed or planned).
"A confluence of factors is making it very difficult for owners of coal plants, particularly old coal plants, to compete," wrote Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress. "A combination of high domestic coal prices, low natural gas prices, new air quality regulations, coordinated activist pressure, and cost-competitive renewables are making coal an increasingly bad choice for many power plant operators."
The agreement calls for the establishment of an advisory council that will determine the level of toxicity of the area surrounding the plants the future use of the sites.
Photo: John Bachtell/PW