Alderman takes aim at power-plant emissions

December 17, 2009

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Heads of state from around the world are on the way to Copenhagen to conclude two weeks of climate-change talks. In a couple Latino neighborhoods of Chicago, meanwhile, environmentalists are hatching a climate plan of their own. They've found an alderman to propose an ordinance aimed at two power plants. The measure would tighten limits on soot emissions. And Chicago would become one of the nation's first cities to force power plants to cut their exhaust of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. We report from our West Side bureau.

Audio Slideshow: Stroll through Brenda Becerra's neighborhood and see inside the Crawford plant. Photos by Peter Holderness.

16-year-old Brenda Becerra says her struggle with asthma started in third grade at this school in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood.

BECERRA: We were running laps. All of the sudden I lost my breath, started coughing a lot. I had to stop. And kids started making fun of me because I couldn't run.

Brenda's family tried to get rid of household asthma triggers like carpets, pets and dust. But her breathing trouble continued. Eventually Brenda's family found out about an asthma trigger four blocks away.

BECERRA: Many kids here don't know what it is, and we just call it the cloud factory.

What the kids see as a cloud factory is the Crawford Station, one of two coal-fired power plants in Chicago. The other is called Fisk. It's about four miles up the Chicago River in the city's Pilsen neighborhood. Both plants are more than eight decades old.

A 2002 study by a Harvard public-health professor estimated Crawford and Fisk each year were to blame for 2,800 asthma attacks and 41 deaths.

URBASZEWSKI: We can educate teachers, students, parents to manage asthma.

That's Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

URBASZEWSKI: But when you're talking about air pollution and how it triggers asthma attacks or other health problems, it's something that those people can't control. That's why we need the city to protect all those kids and all those families.

Urbaszewski's association is among a half-dozen groups working with a Chicago alderman on an ordinance to regulate what these plants put in the air.

The measure would force Crawford and Fisk to spew less soot and carbon dioxide.

URBASZEWSKI: There are technologies out there that could greatly diminish the pollution.

This isn't the first time Chicago environmentalists have pushed for city regulation of the power-plant emissions. Last time, the owner fought them. That owner is Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California-based Edison International.

Ambi: Plant.

MITCHELL: Midwest Generation spokesman Charlie Parnell is showing me around the Crawford plant.

PARNELL: We're going to go up to the roof so you can see an overview of the operations.

Ambi: Roof.

MITCHELL: The plant's big chimney is down for maintenance. But a smokestack they call Unit 8 is going strong.

PARNELL: It's currently producing about 235 megawatts of power. That's roughly enough for 200,000 households.

Downstairs in a conference room, Parnell says he doesn't buy the Harvard study.

PARNELL: Asthma rates, according to the American Lung Association, have been skyrocketing for the last decade. At the same time, our emissions have been declining. So someone needs to show me how there's a correlation between skyrocketing asthma rates and our emissions declining. You can't draw a parallel between the two.

It's not just Chicago environmentalists taking aim at the coal-fired plants. Illinois and federal authorities filed suit against Midwest Generation in August. The suit alleges the company's Illinois plants violate the Clean Air Act.

Midwest Generation says it's addressing the problems. The company has spent millions of dollars to cut mercury emissions. It's also agreed to timelines for reducing its exhaust of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.

But Parnell says cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, as the city ordinance would require, is another matter.

PARNELL: There is no technology currently available that would allow us to reduce our CO2 emissions. The only way is by shutting down our plants.

Ald. Joe Moore (Ward 49) can't say that idea hasn't crossed his mind. Here he is at a rally outside Fisk in October, after environmentalists enlisted him to help take on Midwest Generation.

MOORE: I will be introducing an ordinance in the Chicago city council to shut down that power plant and to shut down the Crawford plant.

MOORE: I said that at a very early stage...

Ald. Moore says he now has to tone down his rhetoric before he introduces the ordinance in the next few months. He says the goal is to clean up the plants, not close them. Moore's predicting widespread support on the city council.

MOORE: Clean air doesn't know ward boundaries. The emissions from those power plants float all the way to the North Side.

Still, Mayor Richard Daley's administration says it wouldn't have authority to regulate power-plant emissions. The city says that's the job of state and federal officials

Ald. Ricardo Muñoz sees it that way too. The Crawford plant stands in his 22nd Ward. Midwest Generation has contributed to some of Muñoz's election campaigns and to community groups in his ward. But he says that does not affect his judgment.

MUNOZ: We're talking about an industry that has such a size that if you start regulating it city by city by municipality, you'll have a hodgepodge of regulatory messes that end up slowing down development or slowing down any sort of investment in the neighborhoods.

The Illinois attorney general's office says any ordinance would likely land the city in court.

Ambi: Joseph E. Gary Elementary.

Brenda Becerra is watching kids scamper around at her old elementary school. She's now a junior in high school. She's still struggling with asthma. It's forced her to quit playing soccer and the saxophone. She has to avoid climbing more than a couple flights of stairs.

Brenda looks toward the power plant and wonders why it's still open.

BECERRA: Why can't we have a say in what we want or what we need--what we want to see changed?

Brenda says it's time the city step in and shut the plant down or at least regulate its emissions.