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Chicago Coal Plants Sued for Alleged Violations

La Raza, News Report, Fabiola Pomareda Posted: Sep 29, 2009

Traduccin al espaol

CHICAGO -- For years, energy company Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California-based Edison International, has drawn criticism from environmental groups and neighbors of six aging coal-fired power plants in Chicago and downstate Illinois that date from the early 1900s.

The strongest opposition has targeted two plants in Chicago near densely populated Hispanic neighborhoods. Yet while critics charge that the Fisk and Crawford plants, in the neighborhoods know as Pilsen and Little Village, have long been two of the citys leading sources of heavy air pollutants, calls for tougher regulation of the plants had met with only limited results.

But in a sign that both the federal and local regulatory agenda may be changing, lawyers from the Justice Department, on behalf of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in conjunction with Illinois States Attorney Lisa Madigan, filed a lawsuit Aug. 28 against the company for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit claims the six coal plants are operating without required upgrades to pollutant controls, as required by the federal law.

Midwest Generation spokesperson Susan Olavarria said the companys critics are misinformed. She invited residents of the communities where the companys plants are located to tour the facilities.

The accusations that the community and many environmental groups continue waging against us stem from the fact that we are a corporation, were big, and its easy to say were guilty instead of looking at all the causes of illness in the community, Olavarria said.

Environmental activists quickly fired back. Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, agreed that local residents have only limited access to information about the plants, but added that the existence of other sources of pollution does not protect Midwest Generation from sanctions if they are violating environmental laws.

Pilsen

According to Mara Chvez, a 30-year resident of Pilsen, while some residents living near the Fisk and Crawford plants have joined local environmental groups in speaking out against the plants, most are largely unaware that the nearby plants could have harmful health consequences. Chvez, spoke to La Raza during a protest vigil in front of the Fisk plant last April.

When I lived at 21st Place and Paulina (near the Fisk plant), if I opened the window in the morning and ran my finger across the sash, my finger would be covered in black dust. The same would happen with the car. It was so bad my son developed allergies when he was five years old, Chvez said. She has since moved further away from the plant.

My doctor told me, There is a lot of pollution where you live. Dont let your son play outside, close your windows and install central air."

Little Village

On the corner of Pulaski and 28th Street, a merchant sells fresh tomatoes, melons, pineapple and papayas. In the late afternoon sun, customers gather around his makeshift market while cars speed by on the busy Pulaski thoroughfare. In the background, two chimneys from the Crawford plant rise above 35th Street.

Traffic is heavy. As we approach, small stores give way to single story homes. Behind them looms the Crawford plant like a giant in the backyard with its large collection of transformers and other industrial necessities. Along a path on the plants north perimeter we see a large pile of coal covered with a black tarp next to rows of recently planted trees.

Concrete Actions

The planting of those trees is one example of the company's strategy of limiting environmental impact, says Olavarria.

Midwest Generation acquired the Fisk and Crawford plants in 1999 and then spent $250 million on upgrades to help reduce harmful emissions. According to Olavarria, the modifications helped reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide -- a leading cause of acid rain -- by 30 percent, and nitrogen oxides by 50 percent. Mercury emissions have since been reduced by just below 80 percent, she said.

To reduce the spreading by winds of coal dust into surrounding areas, the company covers its coal piles with a type of liquid plastic that when dry, forms a thin protective layer over the coal. The city has helped build protective landscaping around the perimeter in the form of small hills where the trees were planted.

A Question of Health Safety

Several environmental groups have joined together to draw attention to the potential health consequences of coal-fired power plants operating in residential areas. They include the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

A 2001 health impact study by researchers John Spengler and Jonathan Levy from the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that emissions from Illinois coal-fired power plants result in 300 early deaths every year, along with 14,000 asthma attacks and more than 400,000 daily respiratory problems.

When coal is converted to energy, byproducts escape in the form of soot and other gases that spread acros the community and if inhaled by residents, explained Urbaszewski, can can cause asthma, heart problems and even brain hemorrhaging. Wind currents spread the gases across the city.

The impact of just the Fisk and Crawford plants is significant, and it could be reaching the whole area around the bottom half of Lake Michigan, he added. Five of Midwest Generation's six plants are located in the Chicago area.

Opacity

The plants have had problems with exceeding opacity limits (a measure of how much particulate matter is released into the air), admits Olavarria. But Midwest Generation has been forthcoming on days when opacity limits have been exceeded by reporting the incidences and following regulatory guidelines, she added.

Every time we exceed opacity limits we immediately report it and take the necessary steps to reduce emissions. We generate electricity, which is entirely based on demand. The more electricity is used, the more coal we have to burn. Everybody is responsible for this," she said.

In the last 10 years we have reduced opacity incidences by 65 percent and we have never received a notice of violation from the EPA. Not one violation," Olavarria said.

But the company did receive a notice of violation in July 2007, from the EPA's Region 5 office.

We are still evaluating that incident, but it didn't cause us to lose our license to operate those plants," Olavarria responded.

The Lawsuit

According to Mick Hans, a spokesman for EPA Region 5, the company's failure to rectify that 2007 violation notice has led, in part, to last month's lawsuit.

Olavarria responded by saying, We're not going to say that we don't emit (particulate matter into the air), because we are burning coal to generate electricity. But we think that the Justice Department's case is truly a campaign against us, part of a big push by environmental groups."

She points to the company's 2006 agreement with the Illinois Goverment, in which Midwest Generation promised to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 66 percent by 2012 and sulfur dioxide by 78 percent by 2018.

If we don't meet those goals, we will close the plants," Olavarria said.

Environmental Justice

For environmental advocate Urbaszewski, though the coal-fired power plants were built in Pilsen and Little Village well before they became neighborhoods heavily populated by mostly Mexican immigrants and low-income residents, the plants' continued operation is facilitated by having neighbors with limited resources and language skills. Without financial and political clout, poorer residents are hard-pressed to take on a large energy company over the right to live in a healthy environment, he said.

What would happen if those plants were located in (the wealthier suburbs of) Winnetka or Lake Forest, where there would be much more protest and a significant amount of resources dedicated to enforcing the law?," Urbaszewski said.

The broader issue, according to a 2004 report by the League of United Latin American Citizens, is that more than one-third of Hispanics in the US live 30 miles or less from a coal-fired power plant. And 35 percent of US Hispanics live in areas where air quality is below federal standards.

The report, Air of Injustice: How Air Pollution Affects the Health of Latinos, also points out that living within short distances of coal plants presents important health risks to those that are the least likely to have health insurance.

Translated by David Boddiger



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