For years environmental advocates have been trying to get the coal-burning power plants in Pilsen and Little Village to close down or clean up, citing evidence that they produce enough toxic air pollution to cause at least 40 premature deaths and scores of trips to the emergency room each year.
But when two dozen activists—many wearing air filter masks for effect—gathered outside Mayor Daley’s office Wednesday morning, they delivered the message with a new, urgent twist: it’s about the Olympics.
“We’ve been fighting to shut them down for a long time, but the mayor hasn’t shut them down,” said Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, an organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which was behind the event. “So we figured that if he won’t do it for the residents, maybe he’ll do it for all the Olympic visitors.”
In other words, they’re trying to use the Olympics as leverage. The strategy should sound familiar: south- and west-siders have already started forming coalitions to demand funds for affordable housing, transportation, and parks before they agree to using chunks of their neighborhoods for Olympic facilities.
And why not? The mayor does as much of what he wants as he can; banding together to pressure him may not work, but it’s certain that nothing else will.
That said, it’s going to be tough to force the power plants to shut down. For starters, the mayor and his staffers have their defenses well-established by now. They say they don’t have the authority to force the plants to close or even curb emissions, even though they’d of course like cleaner air; and they say that jobs would be lost and electric rates might climb. All of these arguments are debatable, but since 2006 the Daley administration has also been able to point to a deal the state brokered with Midwest Generation, the owner of the plants, to cut most of their pollution within a decade.
The LVEJO activists say that’s too long—the health of hundreds of Chicagoans will be imperiled over that time, and the plants won’t even be cleaned up before the 2016 games. They’d like to see the plants turned into training centers for renewable energy jobs. “We want to really be seen as the greenest city,” said Samuel Villansenor, another organizer.
The group is also part of the growing chorus demanding public transit improvements as part of any Olympic package. Michael Pitula, LVEJO’s point man on transit, called on Daley to make a priority of securing more federal and state funding for the RTA, clean up the CTA’s bus fleet, and boost its maintenance staff. “Come on everybody and join me: No transit, no clean air, no Olympics!” he hollered.
Of course, Mayor Daley was 1,000 miles away, and most of the media with him; the hallway outside his office was an echo chamber. But the LVEJO leaders said they’ve already sent him a letter asking for a community meeting. If they don’t hear anything back, they say they’ll show up outside his office again. Then they’ll start drafting a note to the International Olympic Committee.
“We’ll tell them it’s not as pretty a picture as [Daley’s] painted it,” said Wasserman Nieto. She added: “We’re not opposed to the Olympics per se, but we need to get the mayor’s attention.”