One of the recurring themes across dozens of entries in The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the damage done in industrial society by burning coal for energy. On a global scale, the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by incinerating coal contribute to the observation that since (as the American Meteorological Society put it this month) “long-term measurements began in the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been increasing at a rate much faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years,” and that this is a cause of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s climate system. Beyond the global effects, the process of releasing the tremendous energy inherent in coal has had consequences for local and regional environments. Sulfuric and nitric acids released in coal incineration create acid rain, which threatens fish and aquatic life. Coal ash, a noncombustible waste product of incineration, has caused problems for urban residents who have breathed in particulate matter and hazardous materials ranging from arsenic to mercury. In the years when coal was the primary fuel for domestic heat, cities (including, as Joel Tarr and I wrote in 1997, St. Louis) saw clouds of coal smoke blacken midday skies in the winter months. Even today, in an era when natural gas has supplanted coal for many energy uses, coal-burning utilities dump more than 130 million tons of treated coal ash in landfills each year. Mining the raw material has its own set of consequences, including short- and long-term hazards for the miners and pollution of the land, air, and water in areas of heavy mining. Coal has powered industrial progress, but that power comes with a price.
And while everyone pays for burning coal, not everyone has paid for it equally. In the Chicago area, coal-burning power plants opened in the early twentieth century south of downtown. A large one, the State Line Generating Plant, opened in 1929 just across the state border in Indiana. Air pollution from the plant blanketed the South Side for decades, filling the lungs of millions of Chicagoans (including, in the 1970s, a very young South Shore resident named Carl Zimring). In 1903, the Fisk Generating Station opened in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. In 1924, the Crawford Generation station opened west of Pilsen in the Little Village neighborhood.
All three of these plants produced electricity for the region. All three of these plants produced pollution locally. And all three of these plants were situated in areas where the people most affected by the local emissions were minorities. The South Side of Chicago bordering Indiana has been majority African-American since the Great Migration. Pilsen and Little Village are two of Chicago’s most established Hispanic neighborhoods.
Community members blamed the continued operation of the three plants (often in violation of the Clean Air Act) for a variety of respiratory illnesses, especially in children. Residents founded the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) in order to fight the continued operation of these plants and draw attention to the consequences of that operation.
I became familiar with LVEJO’s work when I arrived at Roosevelt University in 2008. A student named Carrie van Eck approached me to supervise an honors thesis in which she worked in LVEJO’s office and contextualized the organization’s work in the history of environmental justice and local environmental degradation. Carrie’s stellar work gave me an appreciation of the commitment community members had battling for their health, and as I learned more about their work, so did many Chicagoans. The organization’s profile was soon raised by protests that attracted activists from beyond the neighborhood (including, in 2011, Greenpeace activists climbing the smokestacks).
By this time, the costs of operating coal-fired power plants was getting higher. After Barack Obama became president in early 2009, his administration began focusing on the consequences of mercury emissions from power plants. President Obama had represented much of the South Side in the Illinois Senate. He was familiar with the medical research linking mercury exposure to neurological problems in developing children, and as a community organizer in the Roseland neighborhood during the 1980s, had a more vivid understanding of the environmental inequalities facing urban communities than any of his predecessors as president. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first national standards limiting mercury emissions from power plants.
Enforcing the mercury emission limits led antiquated coal-fired power plants across the United States to shut down this year. Back in March, the State Line plant closed. This week, the Fisk and Crawford plants followed suit. When the closures were announced earlier this year, LVEJO’s Lillian Marian Molina said “parents will not have to miss work, due to their children having asthma attacks. They won’t have to rush their children to the hospital as frequently. They won’t have to look at these polluting facilities much longer.” Children growing up in Chicago in the coming years will not breathe in the pollution I breathed as a child.
Which is not to say that the other methods we use to generate energy in modern society come without consequences. Far from it. But the closures in and around Chicago this year both remove some of the most acute forms of pollution affecting thousands of residents and reduce the city’s emissions of greenhouse gases.