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Kalle Eko/MEDILL

The Crawford Generating Station in Little Village will close down in September.

Future of Fisk and Crawford sites still in limbo months after announced closing

by Kalle Eko
July 12, 2012


Kalle Eko/MEDILL

Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen.


Kalle Eko/MEDILL

Crawford Generating Station

Less than two months before two pollution-prone power plants are set to close in Chicago, nearly nothing about the future of the plant sites is settled.

Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the closings of the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants last February, the only information that city and company officials have shared with community members is that both plants will be shuttered in September.

Midwest Generation, the owner of the century-old plants, negotiated a deal with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Clean Power Coalition to close the facilities before a mandated 2018 shutdown. Instead of making additional costly mandated pollution-control retrofits, which Midwest Generation has said it cannot afford, the company expects to close the plants and receive a $151 million tax credit.

Midwest has operated the plants since 1999.

This summer, a task force appointed by the mayor held two public forums near the plant locations in Pilsen and Little Village to collect input from residents on future uses for the plant sites.

Lourdes Casas, a resident of Little Village for 30 years, said at the Little Village town forum that Midwest Generation's obligations go far deeper than closing and cleaning up the plants.

She and others want assurances that the plants will be redeveloped for the benefit of the community.

“You don’t have to do anything, legally. Morally, you have to do everything,” Casas said. “We’re very proud communities, and we expect the same treatment as though we were Lincoln Park.”

Casas’ apprehension with the closings follows a long, checkered relationship that the plants have with their communities and environmental groups. In 2009, the U.S. EPA and state of Illinois filed a civil complaint against Midwest Generation alleging that the company had upgraded the Fisk, Crawford and other plants without adding pollution controls mandated by the federal Clean Air Act.

The plants have impacted the health of local residents, according to a 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health. The study estimated that every year, the Crawford and Fisk power plants are responsible for 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits and 41 early deaths in the Chicago area.

Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and a member of Mayor Emanuel’s task force, said that a survey by her organization showed most local residents want more business opportunities in the area. Suggestions included repurposing the plants into recreation facilities, open space or green technology factories.

“One of the things I don’t want to see is big box retail that will not give living wages and change the character of the neighborhood,” said Mauricio Roman, a Little Village resident who spoke at the forum.

But despite the hopes of residents, it is Midwest Generation that will decide to whom it will sell each plant. The buyer or buyers will then take the recommendations of Mayor Emanuel’s task force into consideration but have ultimate authority in redeveloping the site.

“At the moment, we don’t know what’s feasible,” said 25th Ward Alderman Daniel Solis, a member of the task force. “All these aspirations are good and interesting, but right now they are all aspirations only and nothing concrete.”

Each plant will take an additional three months to be disconnected from the power grid and then undergo several more months of feasibility studies to determine how they can be redeveloped or reused, said Doug McFarlan, President of Midwest Generation at the Little Village forum. Midwest Generation is a subsidiary of Edison Mission Group and separate from Commonwealth Edison Group, which delivers the electricity to Chicago and Northern Illinois.

Though Midwest Generation hasn't revealed potential purchasers as yet, the company has seen a “significant amount of interest” from organizations looking to acquire the sites, said Charley Parnell, a spokesman at Midwest Generation.

In addition, though 150 to 180 plant employees are expected to lose their jobs, McFarlan said that Midwest Generation would continue to maintain a presence at both plants. Some of the plants’ infrastructure will remain active and usable to provide emergency power during peaks in energy consumption, according to McFarlan, and 15 employees will remain, between the two sites.

But regardless of how the area is redeveloped, residents said they see the long-term benefit of cleaner air as the surest positive benefit for both Pilsen and Little Village.

David Hernandez, a teacher and baseball coach at Lawndale Little Village High School, said that in the long run, the closings would dramatically improve the health and well-being of his students and athletes.

“I’ve had athletes complain when we’re outside running at Piotrowski Park about the smell,” Hernandez said. “Maybe we’ll see some tenths of a second cut off from their sprint down to first base.”