PI Original Matthew Blake Friday March 23rd, 2012, 2:55pm

Community Advocates Nervous About Coal Plant Site’s Future

Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that the Fisk coal-fired power plant in the Pilsen neighborhood and Crawford coal plant in Little Village would shut down was validation for community residents. But now residents face a new challenge – influencing what happens next.

Rahm Emanuel’s February 29 announcement that the Fisk coal-fired power plant in the Pilsen neighborhood and Crawford coal plant in Little Village would shut down was validation for community residents and groups like the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, or PERRO.

“The plants closing is like a dream come true,” said PERRO member Leila Mendez, at a community meeting convened by PERRO last night at the Pilsen branch library. Mendez was diagnosed with a tumor that doctor’s linked to Pilsen air pollution.

But now Pilsen and Little Village residents face a new challenge – influencing what happens next. The two main issues: if Midwest Generation will fully clean up, or remediate, the site; and what replaces the plants.

The clock is especially running on the Fisk site, which Midwest Generation must shut down by December 31, and may elect to close earlier. Last night’s meeting focused on Fisk.

“It’s a really exciting time, but it’s also a really tense time,” PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero said. “We are trying so hard not to be caught off guard right now and get community development right away. We need to make sure there is a serious community process.”

The announcement to shut down the plants – Fisk this year, and Crawford by 2014 – came after years of pressure from community groups as well as national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club.

It also followed growing public sentiment for reigning in polluters. An American Lung Association survey released Wednesday found that, nationally, 73 percent of likely voters support protecting public health through stronger air quality standards.

But if the solution that Fisk must shut down became increasingly clear, the plan for what happens to the site, and the Crawford site, is cloudy.

Emanuel has not released the agreement made between the city and Midwest Generation.

What Emanuel has done is vow that out of the Fisk site – still mainly owned by Midwest Generation parent Edison Electrical Institute – will arise economic development and job creation.

The mayor said March 8 that the Sierra Club and the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation would give $50,000 each to fund the redevelopment process. And the Delta Institute, a Chicago non-profit that touts its work cleaning up and also redeveloping polluted sites, would produce a final report.

Emanuel also announced both a community advisory council and a task force to look at the Fisk, and also, Crawford sites. Tom Alexander, a spokesman for the mayor, says there are no details yet as to who will be on these committees, or when they will meet. “This is still in progress,” Alexander says.

Christine Nanicelli, a “Beyond Coal” organizer at the Sierra Club, also said that little has been determined. “There is a still a lot to unfold in this process,” Nanicelli says.

“All of the site cleaning is to be determined and will presumably be discussed,” Nanicelli adds. “We are looking toward the community and what will be in their best interests.”

Community members at last night’s meeting were concerned if they will get an audience to express their interests.

Mead-Lucero pointed out that PERRO along with Pilsen Alliance, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and the Bridgeport Alliance would all probably get a seat – along with Midwest Generation and the Environmental Law Policy Center – on the community advisory council.

But Mead-Lucero worried that this task force, not the community advisory council, is, “where the muscle will probably be.”

Mead-Lucero also indicated that Midwest Generation could close the Fisk plant as soon as September, prompting fears that Emanuel and Midwest Generation “have some solutions, in quotes, rammed down the community’s throat,” according to PERRO member Dorian Breuer.

More specific concerns would be if Midwest Generation or a new owner would clean up the Fisk and Crawford sites. Also – what will come into the site? The city has zoned Fisk as a planned manufacturing district, but many community members expressed fears that overpriced condos could come into a gentrifying neighborhood.

Other attendees worried that nothing at all would come into the site, and it would become fenced up and deserted.

Nelson Soza, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, also expressed fears of “luxury condos that would price most people out of the neighborhood.”

But Soza was excited about his group’s likely role on a community advisory council. “We are excited to be sitting at the table instead of sitting on the outside,” Soza says.

Image: Inhabitat.com

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