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A cleaner Chicago, not an easy task

by Jennifer R. Luna
May 11, 2010


Jennifer R. Luna/MEDILL

Kathy Cummings holds Mya Asthma at the blue inhaler's first debut around Chicago's Loop for World Asthma Day.

Chart 1

Jennifer R. Luna/MEDILL

 Asthma- related hospitalizations in Illinois has decreased from 2003 to 2007. However, hospital charges for asthma-related cases have actually increased. 

Data was collected from The Illinois Department of Public Health.

Big, blue and shiny Mya Asthma made her recent debut around Chicago’s Loop, stopping at Millennium Park and Daley Plaza to raise awareness about asthma. Mya is a giant blue inhaler, a recruit in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition’s effort to clean up Chicago air.

The coalition is targeting the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants on Chicago’s South Side, both operated by Midwest Generation.

“I think we made some friends Tuesday at Millennium Park,” said Kathy Cummings, 65, a retired Chicago Public School teacher and participant of the Mya event. “It was a good idea to have passersby have their photo taken with Mya, that made it fun and got their attention about the issue, if only for that minute.”

The Chicago Clean Power Coalition, made up of individuals and organizations, including  Pilsen Environmental Rights & Reform Organization, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, and Sierra Club, are advocating healthier air by asking Chicagoans to sign a petition in support of the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance. Chicago Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward, introduced the ordinance to City Council on April 14th.

The ordinance requires that the Fisk and Crawford power plants on Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, to meet higher standards then those imposed by the federal government—standards that entail a reduction of at least 66 percent of their nitrogen oxide emissions.

Due to their old age, Fisk and Crawford power plants are exempted from requirements set by current regulations such as the need to modernize their pollution control devices. These “grandfathered” plants fall under the 1977 Federal Clean Air Act, a law that establishes allowable levels for pollutants omitted in the air and regulates emissions from various facilities.

Before new amendments we’re added in 1990, toxins we’re regulated one by one with the old Clean Air Act. Therefore, the EPA only established regulations for seven pollutants between 1970 and 1990 that old power plants such as Fisk and Crawford currently fall under. New standards are more comprehensive—including categorizing 187 toxic air pollutions that need to be regulated by newer power plants.

Betsy Vandercook, Moore's chief of staff , said those standards are not enough to meet the city’s current need for cleaner air.

"The ordinance is to set a higher bar to what they [Crawford and Fisk] are emitting,” said Vandercook.

Currently, the proposed ordinance is still awaiting a public hearing date to determine whether the city will approve the ordinance or not, she said.

In a 2001 study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that Fisk and Crawford emissions are related to 2,800 asthma attacks, 500 emergency room visits and 41 premature deaths each year due to their hazardous emissions to the air. 

According to data from the EPA in 2004, both power plants emit 17,765 tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and 260,000 pounds of particulate matter (found in soot). Both pollutants contribute to asthma, according to the American Lung Association.

The Illinois Department of Public Health estimates that 20 million Americans have asthma, associated with the deaths of approximately 4,000 individuals. There is no cure for the disease, but medication and care can control and regulate asthma. Inhalers, handheld devices that people place in their mouth and press down to release medication that goes straight to the lungs, are commonly used.

A serious and sometimes life-threatening respiratory disease, home and outdoor pollutants can affect the lives of millions of Americans with asthma. On average, Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, according to U.S Environment Protection Agency. For many individuals, exposure to secondhand smoke or other hazardous toxins in the air can sometimes trigger an asthma attack. 

"People with heart or lung diseases, children and older adults are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure,” said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer of the Washington, D.C.-based lung Association.

The toxic air pollutants such as soot, ash and dust omitted by coal-fired power plants, according to Cummings, is a major instigator for many of the lung-related problems people have to face, including her grandson, who lives in Pilsen.

“People need clean air and there should be no compromise on that,” she said about the city’s need to reform Fisk and Crawford. “They pollute the air and cause injury to the people and the environment.” 

However, Susan Olavarria, director of communications for Midwest Generation in New York, argued that they have reduced their emissions since taking over ownership of  the plants 10 years ago. Some of these cuts include the a 60 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides. There are more steps planned in the coming years, according to Olavarria said the claims made by some of the environmental groups are unfounded and unfair, especially about the impacts the power plants have on the community's health.

"The correlation can not be made about asthma cases," she said. "These plants have never been more cleaner. We're proud of how we run our facilities."

The Chicago Clean Power coalition said Moore’s proposed ordinance only seeks to target the hazardous toxins released by the coal-fired power plants.

Despite efforts to resolve this issue, there is still a long ways to go before any type of compromise can be made between the opposing sides.