PI Original Matthew Blake Friday June 29th, 2012, 4:29pm

After Hearings, No Plans In Sight For Clean Up Or Reuse Of Coal Plant Sites

With an eye toward the potential shut down of all of its Illinois coal-fired power plants and a possible bankruptcy filing, the February agreement Midwest Generation made with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close two coal plants on the Southwest Side increasingly looks like a good deal for the company, and not the ideal outcome for residents who live near the facilities.

With an eye toward the potential shut down of all its Illinois coal-fired power plants and a possible bankruptcy filing, the February agreement Midwest Generation made with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close two coal plants on the Southwest Side increasingly looks like a good deal for the company, and not the ideal outcome for residents who live near the facilities.

Under the deal, Midwest Generation does not have to clean up the site, according to Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander.

That possibly means that the Fisk plant, which takes up 44 acres in the Pilsen neighborhood, and the 72-acre Crawford plant in the Little Village community could continue to transmit air pollution linked to respiratory illness.

But Midwest Generation, the Chicago-based subsidiary of California’s Edison International utility company, is required to disable all generating equipment when each plant goes off line in September. According to Doug McFarlan, a spokesman for Midwest Generation, the site will be decommissioned three to four months after the shut down.

The more likely potential problem, then, is that the century-old sites could lie vacant for years due to the city or new owner not wanting to pay the cost for remediation, which is the process for which old industrial sites are cleaned up for a new use.

Tom Cushing, director of the Delta Institute, which is the Chicago-based non-profit in charge of a city task force Emanuel convened on each site’s future, acknowledges that, “There are some industrial sites that have been present in the city for many years and don’t have buyers.” Asked what could make Fisk and Crawford different Cushing responds, “The best way is to get word to the development community.”

McFarlan said that figuring out the remediation process would be determined by Midwest Generation and a potential developer. “It is just like buying a home: There will be inspections and checks,” McFarlan says.

The remediation process will probably be more complicated than that. It will involve the clean up of asbestos and other problems tied to decades-old buildings, in addition to an inspection of lingering chemicals.

As to identifying a developer, McFarlan said at a city hearing Tuesday in Pilsen that a potential buyer would first come before community representatives.

City hearings in Pilsen and also Little Village Thursday night gave community members a chance to speak before the task force, which plans to give Emanuel a report in mid-July.

But it is not clear what goes into the report besides agreed upon guiding principles about the need for economic development and green space in these predominantly working class, Latino neighborhoods. Also unclear is how the task force and even Emanuel can affect what McFarlan boils down to a transaction between private seller and buyer.

The task force includes McFarlan, as well as Pilsen Ald. Danny Solis (25th), Little Village Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd), and representatives from three community groups that pushed to shut down the plants: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Pilsen Alliance, and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO).

Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of LVEJO, says that her group is coming at the site’s future from “a very different perspective” than Midwest Generation. “They look at it from a company’s perspective where they don’t want to spend money. We are look at it from a community perspective where we don’t want another contaminated site,” Wasserman said after last night’s hearing.

Wasserman hopes that LVEJO and other community groups that banded together to get the site closed can also use public pressure, and the backing of Ald. Munoz, to get the sites cleaned up.

Munoz did not offer specifics in a brief interview last night of what he would like to see at Crawford, saying it was up to community members. Solis, meanwhile, is focused on the fact that the Fisk site lies in the Pilsen Industrial Corridor Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, district. That means that a slice of property tax money collected around the Fisk site stays within the community to support local development.

“That TIF has enabled the city to attract a lot of businesses, clean up the environment, and improve the infrastructure,” Solis says, adding that the TIF can cover “up to 18 to 19 percent” of a businesses’ development costs.

The community groups used the city hearings to relay the results of community surveys. LVEJO found that a trade school for the community is a popular idea.

Pilsen Alliance and PERRO both mentioned the need for multiple uses at the site, with perhaps part of the site for green space and another component for clean manufacturing.

PERRO ran five community forums on Fisk prior to this week’s hearings. PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero said Tuesday evening that while he is optimistic about the site’s future, “There was a lot of fatalism among the people at the forums that it’s just going to sit there.”

Image: Flickr/Swanksalot

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