The anger and courage of Americans who have been expressing opposition to the coal industry and expending energy to chip away at the power coal companies have to destroy America’s environment is paying off.
A federal judge recently "ordered Patriot Coal Corp. to spend millions of dollars to clean up selenium pollution at two surface coal mines in West Virginia," an order that environmental groups said was the "first time a court has demanded restrictions on selenium, a trace mineral commonly discharged from Appalachian surface mines, where the tops of mountains are blown away to expose coal."
Activists especially those affiliated with Appalachia Rising are building up support for the abolition of surface coal mining in America. Applachia Rising plans to confront the Obama Administration and other politicians for their failure to halt this devastating mining practice on September 27th just after they have a two-day conference at Georgetown University on September 25th and 26th.
While most activism against the coal industry in America is focused on ending the practice of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, there is a movement of solidarity building in this country against coal. The dirty practices of the coal industry are all around us. If you consider the fact that Patriot Coal has operations in Illinois and other parts of the Midwest, it is not hard to see why citizens in cities like Chicago are taking on the coal industry and demanding the industry cleans up its practices.
Clean Power Chicago, a grassroots coalition of organizations in Chicago working to clean up two coal-fired power plants and build a clean energy future for Chicago, in the past month achieved a huge victory: Alderman Ricardo Muñoz signed on as a co-sponsor to the Clean Power Ordinance, which organizers in the coalition hope will pass and help reduce emissions from Midwest Generation’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants in Chicago.
Alderman Muñoz is the alderman for the ward where the Crawford plant is located. His sponsorship, which was the product of lobbying by a grassroots organization known as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and ward residents, sent a huge signal to other aldermen in the city of Chicago and increases the likelihood that other aldermen will support the ordinance.
I spent some time interviewing three leaders who are playing key roles in the movement toward a clean energy future in Chicago. They spoke to me about how this initiative has earned the support of national environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and how it could be a model for other cities with residents who want to organize their community to advance clean energy agendas.
Dorian Breuer, a member of the Chicago environmental all-volunteer group in the Pilsen neighborhood called the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), explained this is "a case where we are acting locally to affect our local health that will have "global effects." According to Breuer, the coal plants in Chicago are "the largest single source of carbon emissions in the city of Chicago."
Addressing the reality that this is the second time Chicago residents have mounted an effort to clean up the plants (an attempt was made in 2002), Brewer suggested more and more residents "recognize the pollution [from] these coal plants [does] not stay in a small band around this coal plant, which are in the communities we live in.
"The health effects go citywide and they know the statistics of not just these coal plants but all the pollution from coal plants affecting the outside air in Chicago," explained Breuer.
Christine Nannicelli, an associate field organizer with Sierra Club, explained, "Our asthma rates here in the city are staggering and they are some of the highest in the nation."
Clean Power Chicago’s website lists the following facts from the EPA and other experts: on average, 1 out of 7 school-aged children has asthma; in a number of Chicago-area neighbors upwards to 1 out of 3 children suffer from asthma; 13 million school days are missed each year due to asthma; asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children under 15 and nearly 2 million emergency department visits each year are asthma related; and it is estimated that the number of people with asthma will grow by more than 100 million by 2025.
Coalition organizers said the public health aspect of this really resonates with Chicagoans and plays a key role in convincing Chicagoans to take action.
In relation to the public health aspect of the issue, Edyta Sitko, an organizer with Greenpeace in Chicago, explained people want to "move away from fossil fuels that are not only contributing to global warming but having dire health effects on our city." And, she contended, "There are a lot of cities looking toward Chicago being a leader and cleaning up the coal plants in Chicago."
On top of that, organizers view this as a "justice issue." Breuer described the communities around these coal plants as having the following characteristics: lower income, lots of minorities, lower education levels, higher rates of unemployment, lower quality schools, and higher number of students per teacher ratios."
Affirming Breuer’s description, Nannicelli said, "The two neighborhoods, Little Village and Pilsen, where these two coal plants are located and the predominantly lower income Hispanic neighborhoods around these plants" are really moved to action because of the social justice aspect of this issue.
The campaign has placed a focus on aldermen as the key to success. Sitko described how the grassroots are convincing aldermen to support the ordinance:
"About a month and a half ago, we launched an organizing effort in Alderwoman Leslie A. Hairston’s ward specifically around asking her to sign on to the Clean Power Ordinance. There was an organizer in Hyde Park that had been working with constituents there–getting sign up letters, getting phone calls into Alderwomen Hairston’s office–letting her know she needed to support the ordinance. Before a press conference on Thursday, [on Wednesday night] we called a community meeting in Hyde Park. A few hours before we found out that Hairston had signed on."
Much of the effort owes a lot of its success to Alderman Joe Moore, who represents the 49th Ward, which includes Rogers Park, West Ridge, and Edgewater, making it one of the most diverse and vibrant communities in Chicago.
Midwest Generation, the owner of the plants, asserted, according to Chicago News Cooperative journalist Kari Lydersen, "the city lack[s] the authority to regulate the coal plants" and "only the state and federal government could do so." The corporation further asserts, "If the Moore proposal passes, the company will challenge Chicago’s regulatory authority in court."
Breuer said of Midwest Generation’s disregard for its pollution of Chicago’s climate, "The reality is thanks to relaxed campaign finance and lobbying laws the company has a lot of power. We found that over the last ten years, when we looked at state of Illinois records, it donated 100,000 dollars just to local aldermen in the city of Chicago and that’s a huge amount."
Breuer contended Midwest Generation has "an interest" in not spending "a lot of money to clean up their plants" and that is "absolutely impacting public space." But, he concluded Midwest Generation always says they are "following the law and the public in theory has created the law" so they can’t be faulted for doing any wrong.
"Most of what they do is fully within the law. And that’s why this campaign is targeting the law," said Breuer. "That law operates in favor of coal plants and against the local residents and all the residents anywhere near coal plants."
Now that Alderman Muñoz has signed on, the coalition hopes to earn the support of Danny Solis, who is the alderman for the ward where the Fisk coal plant is located They hope Muñoz’s leadership and example will compel him to take similar action and sign on in support of the ordinance.
The ordinance has 13 co-sponsors: Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman Leslie Hairston, Alderman Freddrenna Lyle, Alderman Sandi Jackson, Alderman Toni Foulkes, Alderman Joanne Thompson, Alderman Ricardo Munoz, Alderman Sharon Dixon, Alderman Ed Smith, Alderman Scott Waguespack, Alderman Rey Colon, Alderman Eugene Schulter, Alderman Mary Ann Smith.
The story of this Clean Power Ordinance Coalition is just one example of how Americans can take personal responsibility for the health of their community and the environmental future of America. Thousands are tuned in to the impact of the coal industry and no matter what the coal industry does these Americans are not going to back down in the face of their corporate power and influence over public policy and the wider American population.