A hearing about the Clean Power Ordinance, which would impose new limits on particulate matter and carbon dioxide emitted by Chicago's two coal-fired power plants, brought hundreds of supporters and opponents to City Hall today. Hard hat-wearing power plant employees, who said they were worried about losing their jobs if the bill is passed, packed the council's main chambers while green-clad environmental campaigners, who have long criticized how pollution from the Fisk and Crawford plants affects human health and contributes to climate change, periodically chanted outside as aldermen took testimony this morning.
The divide in the audience led some council supporters of the Clean Power Ordinance to reiterate their support for organized labor and argue there was no contradiction between good paying jobs and pushing forward with new pollution policies. "Those of you out there in labor, you're heard it before from captains of business and industry," said 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore, Clean Power's chief sponsor. "Every time government steps in to regulate industry to protect the health and wealth of citizens … the captains of industry scream it's going to cost jobs. It's going to put people out of work. History has shown time and time again those claims are false."
"I don't think you can separate those who work and those who breathe," said Congressman Bobby Rush, a supporter of the ordinance.
The split, however, seemed stark. "We're here for job protection," Steve Wilson, a laborer at the plants, told Progress Illinois before the hearing started. During the hearing, both coal-fired plant workers and environmental advocates applauded when particular speakers made points supporting their pro or con positions. Midwest Generation, which operates the Fisk and Crawford plants, is joined in their opposition to the ordinance by both the city and state chambers of commerce and the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council, according to a press release.
Faith Bugel, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), said that many bill opponents were bused in from Northern Illinois. "I would ask City Council not to be misled into thinking every person here today are employees of Fisk and Crawford who would lose their job," she said. ELPC is part of the broad array of local and national environmental groups and Chicago-based community organizations that are supporting the Clean Power Ordinance. Bugel argued that the parent company of the Fisk and Crawford plants has plenty of resources to expend on either meeting the limits proposed for particulate matter and carbon dioxide or pursuing alternative energy production with retrained workers.
ELPC estimates Fisk and Crawford generate $127 million annually in environmental and health-related costs in the Chicago region, a number that does not include costs related to climate change. Both facilities are located in heavily Latino neighborhoods on Chicago's Southwest Side that struggle with a range of other health challenges and pollution problems.
Departmental officials from the Daley administration did not express outright opposition to the proposed bill, which is said to now have the support of 26 of the current council members. But Suzanne Malec-McKenna, head of the Department of Environment, testified that her staff's efforts have focused on finding other places beside Fisk and Crawford to reduce particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions. Citing what she said was Illinois Environmental Protection Agency data, Malec-McKenna said the number one cause of particulate matter (PM) pollution in Chicago comes from dust released at construction sites, representing 34 percent of the city's PM levels. Coal plants, she said, contribute 3 percent of the PM levels. Malec-McKenna said the Fisk and Crawford plants released 5.13 million tons of carbon dioxide, the main driver of global climate change, in 2004 (by way of context, the city's Climate Action Plan calls for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by more than 15 million tons by 2020).
"We have a role on air quality," she said. "The important thing is we take a look at proportional efforts for proportional impact."
"They're polluters of perhaps only 3 percent of the problem, but let's tackle that 3 percent," said 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno.
Midwest Generation, which operates the Fisk and Crawford plants, recently said in financial filings that whether it invests $1.2 billion in pollution reduction controls at its plants depend partly on "regulatory and legislative developments" in Washington according to the Chicago Tribune. Those controls -- or else a shut down by 2018 of both plants -- would target mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Left unaddressed is particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions.
"The federal government is not tackling these issues," Moreno said.
The Clean Power Ordinance was not voted on today, which kicks it to the next City Council and incoming Emanuel mayoral administration.