Six years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel brokered a deal with a corporate polluter to shut down coal-fired power plants in Pilsen and Little Village that had belched out lung-damaging pollution for decades.
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 more time to either clean up or shut down.
On Thursday, community leaders who waged that 12-year battle — only to have Emanuel take a bow for it — returned to City Hall to demand a voice in the future of the 72-acre site that includes the Crawford plant, recently purchased by Northbrook-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners.
Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Center, said she fears the fix is in for Hilco to proceed with its plan to demolish the plant and build a warehouse-style logistics and distribution center to process orders for items purchased online.
“These uses would bring with them a massive increase in dangerous toxic diesel pollution from trucks. Simply moving from one toxic air pollution source from burning coal to another toxic air pollution source of diesel means risking the health of our community once again,” she said.
Pollution is only part of the problem. So is gentrification and the history of low wages and poor treatment of employees at distribution centers, Wasserman said.
“Putting this plant there could literally mean that our neighborhood ceases to exist in less than a year due to displacement,” Wasserman said.
“If you don’t include the community in the jobs, you’re talking about a dense concentration of a warehouse logistics facility. Folks are gonna want to live close to where they work.”
Pilsen and Little Village residents laying in body bags and holding asthma inhalers staged countless City Hall protests to press their demand to close coal-fired plants they claimed were literally killing them.
When the plants were finally shut down, they developed “guiding principles” for future development, embraced by Emanuel, that included “living-wage” jobs and a future use that would not “sacrifice environmental health in the name of development.” The community’s vision for the site also called for supporting the local food economy, providing job training and, if possible, providing “solar generation on-site.”
Byron Sigcho of the Pilsen Alliance said it’s “sad” that the same mayor who was quick to claim credit for the Fisk and Crawford closings now must be asked to share information with residents who fought so hard to make it happen.
“This is not an ask. This is a demand,” Sigcho said.
Asked whether he’s more concerned about pollution than about gentrification and low wages, Sigcho said: “We need to worry about all of those. That’s why this coalition has many groups involved that talk about workers rights, the environment and housing.”
Hilco urged neighbors not to “jump to conclusions about the potential end use of this site” before an exhaustive environmental remediation process that’s expected to take up to two years.
Executive Vice-President Gary Epstein also reiterated the company’s commitment to work with community leaders and local Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) “in the coming weeks.”
“After so many years, people are excited about our commitment to spend tens of millions of dollars to clean up this dormant and obsolete coal power plant and prepare the site for a bright future,” Epstein was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.
Epstein said it’s “much too soon” to speculate on a specific tenant, but they won’t be hard to find.
“We believe the location will be extremely attractive to many types of businesses, given that it sits just steps away from on-off ramps to the Stevenson Expressway that are accessible without the need for any vehicle to enter the Little Village neighborhood,” he said.
Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman stressed that the only thing that’s happened so far is Hilco’s purchase of the site.
“I appreciate the fears. But, we certainly intend to engage the community. That’s the mayor’s commitment and the alderman’s commitment as well. No one is being excluded from the process,” Reifman said.
During his 2015 re-election campaign, Emanuel cut a commercial claiming credit for closing the coal-fired plants in the political turf of then-mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Garcia was so incensed, he lit into the mayor during one of their head-to-head debates.
“You single-handedly closed it? People worked on it for 10 years before you were ever elected,” Garcia said. “You were still in Washington.”