Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons from the fight to shut down Chicago’s coal plants

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Kim Wasserman

Kim Wasserman (Photo: Lloyd DeGrane)

Closing the Cloud Factories begins with a story, one of many included that profiles regular, everyday Chicago residents. Kim Wasserman lives in Little Village, a working-class immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side, which is shadowed by the Crawford coal-fired power plant. For decades, the hardworking, primarily Mexican immigrants who live in Little Village didn’t take it too seriously. In fact, they called the coal plant “the cloud factory,” finding it no more threatening than the many other factories and industrial structures throughout the neighborhood.

But things changed as Little Village residents became more and more aware of the health problems running rampant in the community. “Every other house seemed to have kids and grandparents and even working-age adults seized with coughing fits or struggling to get a full breath of air. Those who had sought medical care had inhalers they carried to school and work, others suffered in silence.” And then, the Harvard School of Public Health released several studies extrapolating the health impacts of emissions from the Crawford coal-fired plant and nearby Fisk plant. The studies said that Crawford and Fisk were responsible for thousands of asthma attacks, hundreds of emergency room visits, and many premature deaths among Chicagoans each year, with the impacts heavily concentrated in the neighborhoods closest to the plants.

Numbers like these made a big impact. They directly connected neighborhood coal plants—the seemingly benign backdrop of people’s lives—with life and death.

COAL-FIRED POWER AND OUR HEALTH

Coal-fired power has a huge impact on our health, especially for those who live nearest to the plants. But there’s a reason you don’t normally see coal-fired power plants in well-to-do neighborhoods. Their placement can often demonstrate a “not in my backyard” mentality. That’s why coal plants tend to be located in the neighborhoods low-income and minority populations call home. This means the communities with the fewest resources are suffering the most from coal power’s health-related illnesses.

Particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants contaminates our air and water and is a major contributor to asthma and other respiratory illnesses. According to the World Health Organization, urban air pollution causes approximately 1.2 million deaths each year and asthma affects around 300 million people.

Kayaking past the closed Fisk coal plant. (Photo: Kari Lydersen)

Kayaking past the closed Fisk coal plant. (Photo: Kari Lydersen)

But it’s not just about the smog and dirt we traditionally consider pollution. Carbon pollution from power plants is among the leading causes of climate change, which the American Medical Association associates with increased rates of asthma and respiratory problems and diseases caused by mosquitos and ticks. Climate change will also bring more dangerous heat waves to the United States, which disproportionately affect low-income and disadvantaged people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, socioeconomically disadvantaged and socially isolated people face higher burdens of death from heat.

While power plants are required to limit emissions of toxins like mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals, there have historically been no limits on the amount of carbon pollution these plants can release. Yet all that may change, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new plan—released June 2, 2014— to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, which could significantly reduce emissions from coal-fired power.

MOVING AHEAD

On February 29, 2012, Little Village got great news: the Crawford plant would close by the end of 2014. This was the direct result of the decades-long dedication of community members—like Kim Wasserman—who pledged to make Chicago safer and healthier.

Closing the Cloud Factories is a fascinating history of coal’s grip on our electrical system and a tribute to the regular people who are helping us move away from it. Download your free copy today.

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