Kimberly Wasserman has spent 32 of her 33 years in Little Village, but like most area kids, she had no clue growing up what dangers might lurk in the twin plumes billowing from the neighborhood’s coal-fired power plant. “The plant puts out white smoke, so it doesn’t seem threatening,” she says. “It blends in to the point that people never question how it’s associated with our living conditions.”
Start asking questions, though, and the answers are surprising. Chicago’s West Side is home to a pair of coal plants: Crawford, opened in 1924 in Little Village, and Fisk, launched in 1903 in nearby Pilsen (both are now owned by Midwest Generation). A 2010 report by the Clean Air Task Force, a national nonprofit, links airborne particulate matter from the two Chicago plants with 42 deaths, 66 heart attacks, and 720 asthma attacks a year—and then there are the related rates of high blood pressure and chronic bronchitis. “We take the issue seriously, but when you’re talking about emissions in those neighborhoods, our plants are a really small fraction of the whole picture,” says Midwest Generation spokesman Doug McFarlan, citing commissioned studies that attribute 99 percent of the particulate matter in Cook County to other sources.
“One percent is still one percent,” Wasserman counters. “These are outdated power plants with a detrimental effect on our health. As a low-income community of color, we’re doing our part to be energy efficient, but we’re the first ones impacted.”
So Wasserman, who has worked for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization for 12 years, the past six as executive director, began to educate and organize. In 2002, after Wasserman’s son was diagnosed with asthma, the Little Village group joined with other grass-roots organizations to lobby for shuttering the plants. Although that effort fizzled, its proponents regrouped, and in early 2010 a handful of die-hards, Wasserman key among them, formed the Chicago Clean Power Coalition. The alliance now has more than 50 member organizations. “Before, as much as we tried to explain that the air doesn’t stop at Cermak or I-55, it was considered a Little Village–Pilsen issue,” she says. “This isn’t just about Little Village; this is about air quality in Chicago.”
With the support of Alderman Joe Moore, the coalition introduced an ordinance in April 2010 calling for an emissions reduction at Crawford and Fisk. Despite the backing of 17 aldermen, the ordinance has stalled in City Council, but the coalition anticipates a fresh start following February’s council election. While Wasserman hopes other cities will glean lessons from Chicago’s call for clean power, Little Village remains her priority. “The bigger struggle for us is climate justice,” she says. “It’s a question of our right as a community to say, ‘You are no longer needed here.’”
Photograph: Taylor Castle; Photo Assistant: Joshua Haines; Hair and Makeup: Nika Vaughan; Wardrobe: Tony Bryan; Furniture: Courtesy of Post 27