Coal fire plants in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village communities that belch out lung-damaging pollution will be shut down – one of them by Dec. 31, the other in 2014 – under an agreement brokered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a corporate polluter.
Midwest Generation blinked in response to Emanuel’s threat to put his political muscle behind a long-stalled “Clean Power Ordinance” that would have given the Crawford and Fisk power plants a longer timetable to either clean up or shut down.
The mayor has now accomplished that goal – and the corresponding health benefits to area residents forced to breathe polluted air – without a City Council ordinance that could have been challenged and possibly overturned in court.
“It’s a lot cleaner. We don’t have to go through City Council meetings with more protests outside. It was just good to sit down and come to a workable solution together,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.
“The company could decide to significantly reduce emissions, but energy prices are bottoming out and the cost of retrofitting the plants would be heavy. They don’t want to make that type of investment. At the end of the day, this is an economic decision.”
Midwest Generation officials, their attorneys and lobbyists did not return repeated phone calls about the decision.
With the health impacts well-documented by medical studies, Emanuel campaigned on a promise to force the Chicago plants to clean up or shut down.
Last fall, the mayor got behind the company’s push for a long-term purchase agreement for its wind farms in exchange for shutting down the Chicago plants, only to have House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) scuttle the deal.
Before forcing the company’s hand, the mayor also explored the possibility of attracting investors to clean up the coal plants.
The final agreement calls for the Fisk plant in Pilsen to shut down first, followed by the Crawford plant in Little Village by Dec. 31, 2014.
In exchange, community groups have agreed to drop their lawsuit that contends the plants lack adequate pollution controls with a particular focus on “opacity” violations. That’s a measurement of light blocked by particulate matter from smokestacks.
The mayor has further agreed to work with the company to determine what to do with those sites in the future.
“There’s no promise of any kind of TIF [tax increment financing] money or tax break – just a commitment to set up a group to work on finding a solution for those two pieces of land,” the mayoral aide said.
“Our goal is to create some sort of more sustainable economic engine for the community. It’s gonna be tough. They’re big sites. They’re probably very dirty after years of industrial emissions. They’re gonna need to be cleaned up.”
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes Fisk, applauded the mayor for forcing the company’s hand.
“It’s a welcome decision. I don’t think it makes sense for anybody – especially the people who have to put up with the pollution [to keep the plants open]. In this economy, it doesn’t seem to make sense for the company, either, which is one of the reasons why they are doing it,” Solis said.
During the 2011 aldermanic election, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) branded Solis as a puppet of the coal-fire plants for accepting political contributions from Midwest Generation. SEIU spent $28,000 to distribute a nasty mailer that put the alderman’s face on a puff of smoke belching out of a plant.
After being forced into a run-off where 50 environmental groups had lined up against him, Solis did an about-face and endorsed the Clean Power ordinance.
On Tuesday, Solis was asked whether politics prompted him to get religion on the issue.
“I just heard enough testimony from, not only advocates but regular people – parents and residents – that we have to move on this. I listened to them, and I acted,” he said.
“They key point – other than the more cynical approach about my election – is the point some of the advocates made that this Congress would be very unlikely to make a decision that would force the power plant to clean up further.”