A handful of aldermen and one business in particular greatly influence the air city residents breathe.
Critics are seeing red over campaign contributions from Midwest Generation, owner of the city’s two coal-burning power plants, to select aldermen, including those involved with a proposal that would limit air emissions.
Contributions to aldermen by the owner of the Crawford Generating Station in Little Village, 3501 S. Pulaski Road, and the Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen, 1111 W. Cermak Road, would seem to give the power plants some political leverage.
Both plants are under pressure from local environmental organizations, the Clean Air Act and the proposed Chicago Clean Power Ordinance—all aimed at enforcing stricter regulations on their emissions.
The plants are also subject to a lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency and policy maneuvers by reform minded city aldermen.
According to the Illinois Board of Elections, Alderman Daniel Solís (25th Ward)—whose district includes Pilsen—has taken approximately $49,000 since 2002 in campaign contributions from Midwest Generation LLC, most recently in April. Midwest is a subsidiary of Edison International.
Out of the state’s 22 coal-burning power plants, Midwest owns six—two of which reside in the city less than five miles apart.
Solís denies any conflict of interest involving Midwest in an e-mail, saying “to draw a correlation between campaign donations and [the] ordinance is ridiculous.” Two prominent environmental organizations, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, PERRO, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, LVEJO, strongly disagree.
“I think Solís is being swayed 100 percent,” said Jerry Mead-Lucero, an organizer for PERRO. He added that he thinks campaign contributions play “a large role” in the alderman’s decisions regarding clean air and energy for the city.
According to Mead-Lucero, Solís is the largest recipient of donations from Midwest. Midwest has given approximately $1.3 million to various political campaigns since 2001.
According to the Illinois Board of Elections, Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (22nd Ward)—whose district includes Little Village—received over $10,000 from the power company.
Alderman Edward Burke (14th Ward), received $16,000 from Midwest since 2003 through the Friends of Edward Burke committee, as well as the Democratic Party of the 14th Ward Ad Book Committee.
According to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, Burke asked that the Clean Power Ordinance be referred to the committee on health instead of the committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Utilities, who typically rule on such issues. Because of his request, the ordinance was sent to the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics, made up of all 50 aldermen, where it resides today.
With 14 aldermen in support of the ordinance, the proposal is currently stalled in Rules Committee, known to many as a graveyard for proposals. The coalition is still in need of at least 12 more aldermen in order to raise the Clean Power Ordinance from the dust.
Alderman Richard F. Mell (33rd Ward), chair of the rules committee, is one of several aldermen that are key to movement of the ordinance, but could not be reached by press time.
Susan Olavarria, director of Governmental Affairs and Communications for Midwest, said she “can’t speak for aldermen and how they get influenced,” but describes Midwest’s political donations as a form of civic duty. She said the majority of the company’s contributions go to support city residents in the form of donations to community organizations as part of its overall community giving.
“We’re in the district. We support the aldermen because we should,” Olavarria said regarding the fact that the company’s plants reside in Solís and Muñoz’s wards. “We’re in the business—we’re solicited by others, I mean, everybody solicits a local business. You’re in the community, it’s part of how you contribute and give back to the community.”
But as far as campaign contributions go, some might disagree. According to the Illinois Board of Elections, Midwest also donated $500 to the campaign of Alderman Virginia A. Rugai (19th Ward) in 2007. Rugai is the chair of the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities, which, along with “improvement of the quality of the environment” has jurisdiction over all orders, ordinances and resolutions relating to the abatement of air pollution.
“We’re an energy company and we also support the environment,” Olavarria said. “We’re going to look to support different types of programs and activities that are related to an energy business.”
But contributions to political officers are not the same as contributions to community organizations.
“Companies are there to make money,” Mead-Lucero said. “Is it really in the calculations of a corporation to spend money for purely altruistic motives to support the democratic process? I think any person on the street would have a hard time stomaching that one.”
According to Alderman Joseph A. Moore (49th Ward), Midwest’s contribution to Solís, adding up to approximately $6,000 a year since 2002, is “substantial.”
The Ordinance Announced in April 2010, the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, introduced by Moore, would limit Chicago’s coal plant emissions by 90 percent. According to Mead-Lucero, the ordinance is unique nationwide in that, if enacted, it would be the first instance of a city municipality regulating power plants.
“We’re asking Chicago to play a forward role—to be a pioneer in attacking this particular problem,” Mead-Lucero said.
This is where the line is drawn between the business, politicians and local activist groups involved.
Though Muñoz recently announced a change of mind and is now signed on to the ordinance, Solís has yet to give clear word on his official position. According to Solís’s legislative assistant, Steve Stults, the Environmental Protection Agency now has the power to regulate carbon and has left that power to Congress for the time being.
“The issue we have with this ordinance is that it’s very questionable whether the city of Chicago has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide when this is something that the federal government is currently looking at,” Stults said. According to the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, “Chicago and other municipalities have home rule authority to enact ordinances that protect the health and well being of their citizens.”
The proposed Clean Power Ordinance would give Midwest four years to significantly reduce carbon emissions to a level equivalent to a natural gas plant. Stults said this would likely result in the creation of more plants in the area.
Olavarria calls the ordinance “unnecessary and over-reaching.”
New and outdated
According to new data released Sept. 9 by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, coal power plants contribute to 347 deaths annually in the Chicago metropolitan area. Of that number, the Fisk and Crawford stations are linked to 42 premature deaths. The report also links the plants to an annual 31 hospital visitations, 66 heart attacks and a combined 720 asthma attacks on city residents.
According to Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, the report shows the Clean Air Act working on a national level, though he said “it’s even more urgent to clean up the plants that haven’t been cleaned up yet.” This, Urbaszewski said, includes the city’s power plants.
Though the two plants aren’t Chicago’s main source of air pollution, they are the city’s top-ranking stationary emitters of harmful particulate matter, which typically includes a wide array of particles but in this case refers largely to soot.
According to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the two plants combined have emitted 45,000 tons of pollution into the city’s atmosphere over the last 3 years. This includes 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2007 alone.
Olavarria said Midwest has kept its promise to continually improve its facilities and kept apace with regulations imposed on other modern coal plants.
The problem, according to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, is the plants’ grandfathered status, which subjects them to more lenient regulations because of their old age.
Built in 1903 and 1924 before the Clean Air Act took effect in 1970, Chicago’s coal plants have operated under “new” equipment since the 1950s—though they were not expected to run much of the same equipment today. A grandfather clause is an exception that allows an old rule to continue after new rules are made, in this case, new rules under the Clean Air Act.
Olavarria calls the plants’ grandfathering “a big misconception,” saying the plants do, indeed, have to follow “the same rules and regulations of every other coal plant in the country.” This is despite Midwest’s refusal to install “scrubbers”—a primary pollution control device used in coal plants across the country. Olavarria said the scrubbers are inefficient for the location of
This dispute about equipment is, in part, the subject of a lawsuit filed against Midwest by the Environmental Protection Agency “alleging that the company violated, and continues to violate, the Clean Air Act.”
The ongoing lawsuit claims Midwest made major modifications to its plants without also installing required pollution control equipment. It alleges Midwest is emitting massive amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter as well as violating opacity and particulate matter limits.
According to the National Resources Defense Council particulate matter, along with toxic substances such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and ground level ozone—by-products of coal burning—are known triggers of asthma and other health issues, though according to Olavarria, “there is no direct correlation between asthma rates and [the] plants.”
“This is somewhat akin to the tobacco companies 20 years ago saying there’s no direct link between smoking and lung cancer,” Mead-Lucero said. “It’s the same kind of argument—which is largely just ignoring the facts.”
Aside from the potential negative health effects on city residents, organizations like PERRO and LVEJO said air pollution is a matter of environmental injustice for residents nearest the plants.
Originally a gateway for Czech and Irish immigrants, the Pilsen/Little Village area remains one of the city’s cultural centers with a nearly 87 percent Latino, immigrant population.
Midwest denies any connection between the high concentration of toxic sites in the area—including its own generating stations—and the local population, but neighborhood environmentalists, as well as a great deal of nationwide research, continually confirm the connection between coal plants and their disproportionate location within low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color.
According to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the city has the highest percentage of minorities living within three miles of a coal plant—more than 83 percent are people of color.
According to Olavarria, the city’s coal plants are essential to the grid. However, electricity generated at the plants is not necessarily used for the neighborhoods in which they reside. In fact, Midwest cannot guarantee power generated in the city is used for city residents at all. According to Olavarria, Midwest does not “allocate the power.”
The company is not involved with the city’s utilities, but instead sells its power on the open market to the highest bidder.
“We don’t have a national agenda,” Olavarria said. “Our agenda is to stay in business, but we do that responsibly. We’re proud of what we’ve done. We have consistently shown that we’re a good corporate citizen.”
While Ian Viteri, clean power campaign organizer for LVEJO, said Midwest has contributed financially to the community through its donations to schools and various festivals, he seems to see the other side more clearly.
“They’re still hurting the people physically,” he said. “It’s hard to weigh out how much money you’re going to pay for all the asthma attacks and deaths you’ve caused in the community.”
Viteri has lived in Little Village all of his life. He said he understands what’s been going on between residents and the power plants.
“I’ve seen the problems that have affected my community and my friends—we live in Little Village and we’re doing our best to protect it.”