Aldermanic and community supporters of a bill that would force Chicago's two coal-fired powered plants to clean up gathered in City Council chambers today for an unofficial hearing. Aldermen aligned with Mayor Richard Daley have not allowed the bill to come up for an on-the-record hearing.
If you happened to walk into Chicago's City Council chambers this morning, it would be easy to think the council was conducting official business about an important topic: the pollution that spews out of the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants on the city's Southwest Side. There were experts in business attire testifying about the health affects of allowing the plants to operate. Aldermen listened in keenly. Dozens and dozens of advocates packed the room, sitting in the chairs in the public-viewing gallery.
If you thought that, you'd be mistaken. Today's hearing about the Clean Power Ordinance was what one of its chief sponsors, Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward), described as "ad hoc." It was not part of the legal council record. It was not convened by the joint Committee on Health and Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities, where Moore's bill is stalled, and has been since last summer.
Today's hearing was instead something of an off-the-books plebiscite, meant to dramatize the reality of both the pollution Fisk and Crawford churn out as well as the tight lid that the Daley administration keeps on legislation it opposes. (Merely holding a committee hearing about a bill, as advocates thought they had confirmed in January, does not commit the council nor mayor nor the city to passing a proposed ordinance into law, after all.)
Asked why the bill has not been heard, Moore said, "That question is better directed to the 5th Floor, where the mayor resides. I really don't know. I can't figure it out." Calls to the mayor's press office, health committee chair Ald. James Balcer (11th Ward), and outgoing environment committee chair Ald. Virginia Rugai (19th Ward) were not returned by the time this story was posted. Watch Moore describe the situation:
The Clean Power Ordinance seeks to use the city's home rule authority to set new emission standards for the plants. It will require both to cut one form of particulate matter pollution by 90 percent as well as target a smaller particle that is currently unregulated. Carbon dioxide, the pollutant that causes climate change, would be cut by 90 percent within three years of the bill's passage.
Once the standards go into effect, monthly reports would be required. The ordinance also nudges Midwest Generation, the owner of the Fisk and Crawford facilities, toward renewable power: "All coal fire plants located within the limits of the City of Chicago are prohibited from complying with the emissions limits contained in this section by converting from coal as their primary fuel to another high carbon content fossil fuel," it says.
Midwest Generation has agreed to install pollution control devices at the plants -- but not until 2015 at the Fisk and 2018 at Crawford. For now, the plants are allowed to operate under looser regulations than if they were built after passage of the Clean Air Act; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the U.S. Department of Justice have sued Midwest Generation for allegedly upgrading its equipment but not installing new emission-controlling technologies. The lawsuits are working their way through the court system, too slow for neighborhood advocates.
"As a city, we need to replace these outdated energy sources that are life threatening," Kim Wasserman, a member of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said today at a press conference. She held up a stack of letters from high school students at Farragut, Juarez, and other CPS schools. "We have students voicing their support [for the Clean Power bill] because day after day, year after year, all they want is the right to breath."
A 2001 Harvard study estimated that emissions from the two plants cause 41 premature deaths and 550 emergency room visits annually for ailments like asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Last fall, the Environmental Law Policy Center (ELPC) estimated Fisk and Crawford cause the $127 million annually (PDF) in poorer health.
Moore said today that he thought the Clean Power Ordinance would fall to the next City Council and next mayor (16 aldermen are currently signed on). That may improve its chances. Five of the six candidates for mayor answered an unequivocal yes to a question about supporting the ordinance on ELPC's mayoral survey. "Coal is an outdated, inefficient, dirty energy resource which cannot be our future," Miguel del Valle added to his affirmative response about the bill. "At every step of the process — mining, burning, and disposing — it contaminates our air and water supply and poses a great risk to our public health."
Rahm Emanuel did not answer yes or no to ELPC's question but rather wrote, “Midwest Generation must clean up these two plants, either by installing the necessary infrastructure to dramatically reduce the pollution they emit, or by converting to natural gas or another clean fuel. I will work closely with State and Federal regulators and the City Council to make sure it happens.”
Regardless of the positions of the next mayor, Moore emphasized that everyday Chicagoans were critical to seeing this policy ultimately put in place. "The only way that historically legislation gets passed in the City of Chicago that does not initially have the support of the administration is through grassroots, public pressure," he said.