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Coal Power Plant Shutdown

South Lawndale, on the southwest side of Chicago was home to one of two of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants—the Crawford plant with the Fisk plant next door in the community of Pilsen. Both plants were owned by Midwest Generation. Just a few hundred feet away from the Crawford plant is the vibrant community of Little Village, a small but densely populated neighborhood of some 100,000 residents, mostly Latino families and children.

Toxic emissions from the smokestacks—unwittingly called “cloud factories” by local kids—would waft over the sky in Little Village, while coal dust from the plants’ stockpile settled onto houses and school grounds. The pollution intensified during the winter and summer, when the plants ramped up operations to fill energy demands from other states.

Meanwhile, residents were suffering high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and a slew of other respiratory illnesses. In fact, a Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable to the plants’ pollution. Thousands stayed home from school or missed work every year because they were sick, resulting in educational and economic losses.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) began going door to door talking to families in the neighborhood who were dealing with similar problems. Regardless of language or immigrant status, LVEJO worked with community members to ensure local voices were front and center, LVEJO worked with other local community-based organizations to form a strategic alliance with faith, health, labor, and environmental groups and reached out to local policymakers. With limited resources, LVEJO mounted a formidable campaign that got residents out to picket and attend public hearings, organize “Toxic Tours” of industrial sites and stage a “Coal Olympics” timed around the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

After a long stall in Chicago politics, whose leaders had long supported the coal industry, the community’s efforts to shut down the plants gained new momentum in 2011 with the creation of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition followed shortly by the election of a new mayor.

The coalition pushed efforts to build momentum for the Clean Power Ordinance among local policymakers, and the measure received support from 35 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Faced with expensive requirements to upgrade its pollution controls and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Midwest announced it would shut down the Crawford and Fisk plants.

The coal power plants closed ahead of schedule in the fall of 2012, and LVEJO, in partnership with a community organization in nearby Pilsen, negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement. The agreement prohibits any fossil fuel industry from operating on the property, and entitles residents to meet the new owners, who will be required to present their plans for the site to the community.

LVEJO is part of the City of Chicago’s Re-use Taskforce for Crawford and Fisk and have helped develop guidelines for the redevelopment of the sites. The Little Village community is excited to see the site redeveloped in a multi-use site that includes: Access to the Chicago Sanitation Canal, Open Space, Manufacturing and Commercial.

LVEJO and the Chicago Clean Power Coalition have won a stunning victory for our community in shutting down two of the dirtiest coal plants in the country. We are currently in the midst of fighting for a just transition – the conversion of the coal plant properties into recreational, open space and economic development assets that serve our community.

Our work and our struggle will continue so long as any frontline community suffers the ill effects of extracting and burning coal. Our struggle is against the coal industry itself. So long as corporations extract and burn coal for profit, at the cost of the health and well being of poor and working class communities and communities of color, we will have work to do.

We the Little village Environmental Justice Organization declare our continuing struggle against Big Coal and declare our solidarity with frontline communities fighting to get free from its grasp.