The brick smokestack towers above Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood burns coal to provide electricity for much of the city while puffing out plumes that sometimes mix beautifully with the sunset.
But the effects of coal, which provides about half our nation’s energy, are far from beautiful. Though much has been said about the possibilities of “clean coal” that burns with low emissions, many of the nation’s plants are still archaic structures like this one in Pilsen, built in the early 1900s and grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act, exempt from meeting the stricter regulations, and using the updated emissions-control technology that new plants must employ.
About three miles west from the Pilsen plant is another coal-burning plant in Little Village, also a low-income immigrant barrio. And about 10 miles southeast is yet another just across the Indiana border along Lake Michigan, a behemoth rising over the largely black, Latino, and working-class white neighborhoods of south Chicago and northwest Indiana.
Like other types of polluting industry, coal plants often constitute examples of environmental racism.
The often low-income immigrant or minority communities that surround them suffer the effects of particulate emissions — roughly, smog — which are known to exacerbate or cause respiratory problems including asthma and emphysema. The plants also emit nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain) and mercury, along with other problematic compounds. And carbon dioxide, which doesn’t harm human health directly but is a major cause of global warming.
While the tall stacks help disperse these pollutants over a wider geographical area, low-income communities can still be considered disproportionately affected, especially by mercury, since it bio-accumulates in fish and is a neurotoxin for the people who then eat these fish.
In Wolf Lake, Lake Michigan, and canals snaking around the Chicago area coal-burning plants, black and Latino families often fish, likely for an affordable source of protein as well as for fun. But if women of child-bearing age or children eat more than one or two fish a month, (for most fish species), serious brain development impairment could result. Cardiological effects have also been reported from mercury.
Though mercury’s dispersal in the air is still not well-understood, mercury from the coal-burning plants in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs is also likely accumulating in fish throughout the Midwest or beyond. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Native American tribes who rely on fishing for both sustenance and tradition have had to curb their fish consumption because of mercury, keeping careful records of how many fish they eat and what types.
Technology is available to greatly reduce particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emissions. And when older plants make significant upgrades and expansions they are required to employ this new technology under a law called New Source Review. But six coal-burning plants in Illinois are charged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) of violating New Source review, expanding their operations without cleaning up. The Illinois plants are run by the company Midwest Generation, created by a subsidiary of Edison International strictly for the purpose of buying archaic coal plants in Illinois and one in Pennsylvania. The Illinois plants also violated opacity legal limits for their emissions an inordinate number of times over the past few years, according to the US EPA.
The company is still negotiating with the agency to determine how it will respond to the charges. Some city councilmen and many local public-health advocates have long been pleading with the company to reduce their emissions. But company officials have responded they meet legal limits and the upgrades would be too costly, resulting in higher rates or even closure of the plants.
Meanwhile, public-health and environmental advocates nationwide point to the larger picture, saying we need to wean ourselves off coal altogether even though it is an abundant and relatively cheap resource in the U.S. From the mining process to the burning, it ruins miners’ health, destroys communities (literally, in Appalachia), and pollutes the air, not to mention being a major source of carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming.
One of the more popular alternatives lately is nuclear energy. But while nuclear energy is relatively clean assuming nothing goes wrong with the reactors, harvesting the uranium needed to fuel nuclear power has caused a legacy of cancer and kidney disease for Navajo in the southwest and others who live where it is being mined and processed.
Wind (pictured at top) and solar power have virtually no significant health or environmental impacts, though there are still logistical challenges in making them widespread, dependable sources of electricity. Parents who look up at the Fisk coal plant’s smokestack while walking their children to school each day in Pilsen, wondering what effect it is having on their families’ health, say it is time to start addressing those challenges and moving to a clean power future.