Protesters demand coal company clean up its act

April 21, 2011 3:05:20 PM PDT
A vocal debate over clean power took place before a pair of City Council committees Thursday.

Protesters from Pilsen and Little Village want to cut pollution from the coal-fired power plant in their neighborhood.

It's an issue that has been dragging on for years in the Southwest Side of the city, and now there is a clean air ordinance being pushed by Alderman Joe Moore that would get the Fisk and Crawford power plants to reduce their emissions of fine particulate mater, the microscopic soot many scientists and public health organizations say is at the heart of increased lung-related ailments in the neighborhood.

The ordinance didn't get to a vote on Thursday, a win for the power plants, but also a call for greater action by those who say their lives are at stake.

Protesters packed the City Council chamber for a joint meeting of the health committee and the energy, environmental and public utilities committee. People on all sides of the issues wanted their voices heard as Chicago attempts to deal with aging coal-fired generating plants in its midst -- plants whose neighbors, such as Rose Gomez, think jeopardize human health.

"As we speak, the toll keeps rising, with the number of premature deaths that are the result of the power plants continuing to spew all the contamination into the air," Gomez said.

The committee heard Thursday that emissions of fine particulate matter account for as many as 40 deaths annually in Chicago that would otherwise not happen.

But Council also heard that it is impossible in a big city to say these smokestacks directly harm humans. It's a notion that the head of Midwest Energy, operator of the Fisk and Crawford plants -- both dating back to the early 20th century though they have been upgraded through the years, but are not equipped to eliminate all airborne particulates -- says does not take away from Midwest's environmental mitigation efforts.

"The issues that are being talked about here are being addressed in the right place, the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA, and I think Chicago really needs to take a look at what they are doing, to wade in here with an additional layer," said the CEO Douglas McFarlan.

"I believe we want clean air also and we are fighting for that too," said Mike Subach, who works at a Midwest Energy plant. "We are working very hard and we have spent a lot of money to have clear air.""

The city clean air ordinance will now likely be considered by a new Council, and the alderman behind the effort is optimistic, even if his 10-month wait to get to this hearing didn't result in a new law.

"We have a number of new City Council members who are supportive of the city ordinance that are replacing alderman that are opposed, and plus we have the strong support of a new mayor," said Moore.

The ordinance would force the plants to switch from coal to natural gas, cut operations or shut down within three years.

Midwest Generation negotiated a regional plan that the Daley administration says gives the company until 2018 to reduce emissions.

But many, such as the Respiratory Health Association, say those standards do not apply to carbon-dioxide and fine-particulate matter emissions. They apply to other pollutants such as nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide and so on.