As part of an effort to alleviate Pilsen residents' concerns over the alleged adverse health conditions caused by local pollution, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization held a public hearing on Wednesday night with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The meeting, which took place at Casa Michoacan at 1638 S. Blue Island Ave., was attended by about 30 community members in addition to legal counsel from the Illinois Attorney General's office and a panel of experts from the Illinois EPA.
Chicago's Lower West Side Pilsen neighborhood is home to two power plants owned by Midwest Generation. The Fisk and Crawford power plants are also the city's largest sources of pollution, according to a January Chicago Tribune investigation.
Residents say they've witnessed thick clouds of polluted smoke in the area and have also pointed to studies which have measured an increase in cases of asthma and premature deaths related to the pollution.
Back in September, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against another Pilsen-area polluter, the H. Kramer copper smelting plant, located at 1345 W. 21st St., for dumping allegedly dangerous levels of lead into the surrounding neighborhood.
Questions and topics raised by those in attendance ranged from delving into the minutia of environmental law to one woman's straightforward plea of "for me, it's much easier to just close the plant."
Though that comment was the only one to garner applause from the audience, as Assistant Attorney General Krystyna Bednarczyk explained, fixing the area's environmental problems won't be that simple.
"We can only work within the framework of the law," said Bednarczyk. "While you can call for the closing of the plant, we can only demand of Kramer what we're allowed under the law."
Bednarczyk said currently the state can only demand that Kramer lower its emissions down to federal EPA standards, which she said Kramer has already started doing by installing newer safety equipment.
Additionally, Kramer has agreed to participate in a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP), which is a self-funded voluntary action designed to reduce or improve the risk to public health. Bednarczyk said Kramer has not released any specifics on how it plans to follow through.
Here's more from the hearing:
Meanwhile, PERRO has drawn up its own Supplemental Environmental Project to which Kramer has yet to respond.
But Bednarczyk's answers did little to satisfy the concerns of some local residents.
"Is there another legal direction we can take to hold them accountable? Does it need to be the SEP," asked Sarah Finkel, a member of PERRO and social worker who has lived in Pilsen for the past two years. "We're being put last. I cannot walk out of here knowing that it's really up to [Kramer] to make that decision. It makes me lose faith in this process."
Rebecca Burlingham, supervising attorney for the Illinois Attorney General's Environmental Bureau, said in addition to possible fines levied against Kramer in the pending lawsuit, the company's agreement to participate in an SEP is a "win, win, win."
In what's being viewed as a win by PERRO, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes Pilsen, took time out of Wednesday's city council meeting to literally applaud the community's focus on environmental safety. About 100 supporters of the pending Clean Power Ordinance, which would require Pilsen's coal power plants to switch to natural gas, showed up at City Hall.
Though the alderman could not be reached for comment Thursday, PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero praised Solis' support of the pending Clean Power Ordinance.
"He's really become a leader on this and today was a perfect example," Mead-Lucero said after the meeting Wednesday night's meeting.