Coal, Community and Connections: Pilsen and Little Village Define Environmental Justice
On a cold day in November, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy stood behind a podium on a grassy lot in Pilsen flanked by local activists. Getting a visit from the federal agency’s top official is a big deal. The US EPA oversees pollution and environmental cleanup across the country, and is largely responsible for setting environmental regulations and then defending their very existence before an often-hostile Congress.
McCarthy’s visit showed that Pilsen has become a national symbol of the movement for environmental justice and for one of the country’s most pressing energy issues—drastic and controversial changes in how we get our electricity.
McCarthy and other officials from the EPA were showing off the agency’s cleanup of a highly polluted site right next to Walsh Elementary School and a senior housing complex, amongst residential homes and not far from several other schools and clinics. The soil at the site had been laced with dangerously high levels of lead, zinc and other metals left over from the days in the first half of the 20th century when it was a smelter, Loewenthal Metals, which took scrap metal and melted it down into different components. The EPA removed contaminated soil, replaced it with clean dirt and planted a carpet of grass on top.
Meanwhile the agency is continuing efforts to clean up contamination nearby and they are trying to get permission to test and possibly clean up other private lots in the surrounding area. A host of EPA officials had described these projects and a few other initiatives in Pilsen at a number of community meetings over the past few years. They’ve developed a close working relationship with members of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), the Pilsen Alliance and LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization). They’ve walked the streets of Pilsen with an air monitor in a baby stroller, checking radiation and pollution levels.
There are highly contaminated sites throughout Chicago, not to mention throughout the Midwest and the rest of the country. State and federal environmental regulators lack the funds, staff and political power to monitor and clean up more than a fraction of such sites, in places like the Chicago region contaminated by almost two centuries of heavy industrial development, dumping and shipping. And as with most government bureaucracies, the agency’s wheels often turn slowly.
So how did the EPA end up focused so heavily on Pilsen?
The answer is Pilsen and Little Village residents who educated themselves and took action about health threats that for decades had just been considered part of the scenery—including most prominently the smokestack towering above the neighborhood on Cermak Road, just a few blocks from the cleaned-up smelter site. This is the Fisk Generating Station, the country’s first commercial-scale coal-fired power plant launched by energy pioneer Samuel Insull more than a century ago. The Fisk plant and the Crawford coal plant in Little Village just a few miles southwest became focal points of the war over coal-fired power in the U.S., symbols of archaic dirty coal plants that were grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act four decades ago, exempt from installing modern pollution controls because it was expected they would soon close.
Fisk and Crawford like old coal plants across the country instead continued to chug on, making money for companies that sold the power on wholesale markets, gambling on fluctuating power prices to make a profit by selling into a grid that stretches to Pennsylvania and Washington DC and “externalizing” the public cost for things like the 550 emergency room visits, 2,800 asthma attacks and more than 40 premature deaths that a study by a Harvard School of Public Health researcher attributed to the two coal plants each year.
More than a decade ago, Pilsen and Little Village residents started pounding the pavement letting their neighbors know about the risks of the “cloud factories,” as many people called them, and demanding that the coal plants be forced to install modern pollution controls or shut down. The struggle started by local grassroots activists gained the attention of major environmental and health groups in Chicago, and later became prime targets of the biggest national and international environmental groups—which framed them as a symbol of the battle to curb climate change and shift to a clean energy future. In August 2012 the plants finally closed down, thanks to a mosaic of factors including the public pressure and competition from power plants running on natural gas, made suddenly cheap by the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
The EPA’s involvement in Pilsen can also be traced to another century-old institution that is less known to outsiders but is arguably even more notorious among Pilsen residents: the H. Kramer metal smelter, a low-slung brick building with a twisting mosaic of pipes, stacks and ducts clinging to it just a few blocks away. Like the Loewenthal Metals smelter, H. Kramer breaks down discarded batteries and other components into ingots of different metals for resale. For years, even decades, Pilsen residents had worried about smelly thick smoke that would waft over the neighborhood from the smelter, especially at night.
“H. Kramer was a low-lying factor right next to houses, the smoke and steam filtered right out of the building, there were white clouds of smoke going down the street,” noted PERRO leader Jerry Mead-Lucero.
PERRO members focused relentlessly on the smelter, recording the nocturnal emissions and various materials seemingly spilling or leaking around the plant, calling authorities, asking questions and speaking out. They did their own soil testing on nearby lots, finding alarmingly high levels of lead. That sparked the EPA to do further testing, where they found levels of lead on the Loewenthal site and an alley behind H. Kramer that were exponentially higher than amounts considered safe—as much as 26,000 parts per million of lead compared to a safety standard of 400 ppm. Along with launching its own cleanup of the long-defunct Loewenthal site, the EPA signed an agreement with H. Kramer forcing them to install better air pollution controls and make improvements to the surrounding sidewalks and green space.
The victory at H. Kramer showed PERRO activists—including Mead Lucero along with María Chávez, Leila Méndez, Dorian Breuer, Jack Ailey and others—that they could force companies and government regulators to take real action, and enjoy a cleaner environment as a result. This added steam to their battle against the coal plants. Similar dynamics meanwhile also played out in Little Village, where members of LVEJO targeted the Crawford power plant while also fighting to clean up sites made toxic by companies dealing in drums of contaminated waste, plastics manufacturing and other operations.
Many of the contaminated sites and polluting industries in Pilsen and Little Village were and are owned by small and medium-sized companies, many of them family-owned like H. Kramer. Taking on the coal plants by contrast meant going up against a subsidiary of one of the country’s most powerful energy companies, Edison International, which operates coal plants, nuclear reactors and wind farms across the country. Such companies have beaten back the EPA’s own efforts to regulate power plants, donating many millions to the campaigns of politicians who then argue that strict environmental regulations “kill jobs” and stymie economic opportunity; that the government should not limit emissions of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming; that companies dealing in coal, oil and natural gas should get government supports through tax breaks and subsidies while avoiding any responsibility for the health effects they cause.
It was truly a David versus Goliath story when residents of Pilsen and Little Village—low-income, largely immigrant neighborhoods where many people are undocumented—went up against the likes of Edison International and its subsidiary Midwest Generation. It was also a prime example of a struggle for environmental justice—the idea that the poorest and most vulnerable should no longer bear the brunt of toxic pollution while also lacking access to environmental assets like green space, locally grown food and outdoors recreation opportunities.
Just a few decades ago environmental justice was still a little-known concept: to many policymakers and residents it just seemed normal that poor people and people of color would live in the most polluted parts of town; that companies extracting oil, coal, uranium and other natural resources didn’t have to worry about the poor families living in the hollers of Appalachia or the deserts of the Navajo reservation as they went about their billion-dollar business.
Today environmental justice is a widely understood and respected concept. Groups around the country fight for it, and the federal government is required to consider environmental justice when evaluating the impacts of proposed projects involving public land or resources. From poor African American and Native American people bearing the worst effects of oil spills and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast to migrant farmworkers laboring and living amongst toxic pesticides in California’s agricultural valleys to residents in Pilsen and Little Village living beside coal plants, smelters, trucking routes and other sources of pollution…environmental justice is very much in the public consciousness.
But awareness of environmental justice is far from a guarantee that people will be protected from environmental injustice. Power companies that pollute the air and water; mining, oil and gas companies that tear up the earth or inject poisonous chemicals into it; railroad and pipeline companies that transport these materials cross country; and chemical plants and other manufacturers that turn raw materials into saleable commodities all typically seem to get their way in the end. There are vibrant and well-respected environmental justice groups across the country, from inner cities to Native American reservations to rural farm towns. But the members often fight and fight only to get small concessions. Companies wait them out, lying dormant then making their move once public attention has dwindled. Or they divide and conquer, buying off community people with donations and promises—things like school uniforms, internships, street fairs.
Such situations have caused much disillusionment, fatigue and despair among fighters for environmental justice nationwide. But in Pilsen and Little Village, there is reason for hope. PERRO, LVEJO and their allies have weathered many storms. They’ve seen their adversaries try to use all of the above tactics and they’ve had to deal with infamous Chicago politics on top of everything else. And yet they’ve managed to stay the course, remaining uncompromising in their demands and refusing to be bought off, continuing to demand that they deserve an environment just as clean and green as the residents of wealthy, tree-lined neighborhoods on the north side of Chicago. Just as interesting as their dealings with companies and city officials are their interactions with larger environmental, law and health groups which have played critical roles in struggles for environmental justice in Chicago and around the country and the world.
Grassroots activists everywhere are familiar with the frustrating dynamic wherein large non-profit advocacy groups with big budgets and large expert staffs launch a campaign, meeting behind closed doors with government and company officials, crafting strategies and messages and lobbying in state capitols and Washington D.C. Actual residents and grassroots groups are often called in at the last minute or kept on the sidelines, ready to provide a human face to the issue and some quotes for reporters, but distanced from the real action. That’s not to cast aspersions on the individual members and leaders of these larger groups—they often have the best intentions and recognize and regret the aforementioned dynamics, but given the Machiavellian politics at play they feel they have no choice but to play the game in order to get the desired result.
This happened during the decade-long campaign to clean up the coal plants in Pilsen and Little Village. In 2005 and 2006, big environmental groups worked with state officials to institute limits on toxic emissions from power plants that were stricter than federal standards; the limit on mercury was considered the best in the nation. Environmental leaders considered these state limits a major victory, a political deal skillfully worked out through delicate negotiations and astute understanding of the science, policy and politics at play. But members of PERRO and LVEJO were not involved in the negotiations, even though they had been the first ones sounding the alarm about the local impact of the coal plants years earlier. They felt disrespected, patronized and alienated. And they didn’t think the state limits were all they were cracked up to be. For people who actually had to live next to the coal plants, they said the deal did not go nearly far enough. The neighborhood activists made their feelings known—sometimes in quite blunt terms, as LVEJO former executive director Kim Wasserman noted.
“We were saying, ‘Let’s be honest about the issues, the resources, who is pimping who out,’” said Wasserman, whose three kids have all suffered from asthma and whose son became a poster boy—literally—for the campaign to close the plants. “Sometimes you get this feeling, ‘Oh these are the little people of color, (while big groups) get massive amounts of money for the campaign and we don’t see any of it.”
The “big greens”—as they are often called—listened to the grassroots activists’ concerns. The members of the large groups were also clearly deeply committed to the health and well-being of Pilsen and Little Village residents, and had indeed gained great respect for the community leaders. Ultimately the coalition that had fractured around the state agreements reformed and became even broader in terms of allies and focus. LVEJO and PERRO members connected with environmental justice advocates around the world, meeting people from Appalachia to Bolivia and beyond who were also suffering environmental injustice and fighting back. Ian Viteri, who had just recently taken leadership of LVEJO’s clean power campaign at the time, traveled to the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010.
““I met organizers from all over the world,” Viteri said. “I heard about their struggles against water privatization…I saw that it was possible to take on these big companies.”
Climate change became an increased focus of the battle to close the coal plants—which were by far Chicago’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. That turned the plants into an environmental justice issue not just for the surrounding residents suffering asthma attacks, heart disease and premature death…but also in terms of the increasing effects of climate change worldwide—rising sea level that swallows up coastal communities, raging storms that devastate small farmers, tropical diseases that sweep through poor communities.
The environmental justice movement starting with Pilsen and Little Village residents and ending up with global activist leaders visiting Chicago was not the only reason the coal plants ultimately closed. In fact the primary driver was likely changes in the energy landscape—low energy prices that made their power less marketable, competition from cheap fracked natural gas, federal regulations that would eventually take effect.
But when you talk about communities you are often talking about identity and the ability to define yourself, to take ownership of your dreams, to demand that your needs be fulfilled and your voices heard. In that sense the campaign around the coal plants and the related environmental justice initiatives targeting smelters and Superfund sites have much larger implications than the closing of the coal plants. Pilsen and Little Village showed the world that people from low-income immigrant communities can demand the attention of government officials, the country’s most powerful corporations and also the large non-governmental organizations that are used to calling the shots.
Now the coal plants take on new significance as residents continue to fight to define and protect their place in their communities. Gentrification has long been a hot issue in Pilsen and Little Village, and for years even as residents have fought to improve their housing, streets, schools and city services they have also battled the specter of gentrification, the idea that new and wealthier residents will swoop in and displace them as soon as things get a little cleaner and brighter. When the coal plants were chugging away, many people said they would hold gentrification at bay, since people with other economic options would not want to live in the shadow of a coal plant.
On this front the battle around the coal plants continues. PERRO, LVEJO and the Pilsen Alliance are involved in a task force with city and company officials to help determine the fate of the coal plant sites, which are up for sale. Will the sites be home to new polluting factories or power plants? Clean energy installations? Big box stores, condos? Museums commemorating the history of coal power and community activism? Sorely needed parks and walkways? Economic and market forces and the desires of corporations who buy the land will unfortunately still be the determining factor regarding the plants’ future. The task force does not have binding power. But the Pilsen and Little Village activists have made it clear that the sites must be used for something that improves life for existing residents, and new buyers and city officials ignore their wishes at their own peril. The skills, knowledge and connections Pilsen and Little Village residents have built through the battle to close the coal plants and other environmental justice struggles will continue to bear fruit as they shape the future of their neighborhoods and their community. Pilsen and Little Village no longer produce electric power . . . but the people are perhaps more powerful than ever.
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Kari Lydersen. Chicago-based reporter specializing in energy, the environment, labor, public health and immigration issues. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahhm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicagos 99%.