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Scrapbook: Years of Work Pays Off for Chicago Clean Air

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September 12, 2012

Years of Work Pays Off for Chicago Clean Air

IL Clean Power Mike Brune and Tony Fuller
Tony Fuller (right) with Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

Years of work and thousands of flyers and petition signatures later, the Fisk and Crawford coal plants in Chicago recently flipped the switch and ceased burning coal, marking yet another major victory for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and the community groups and allies fed up with Big Coal's toxic pollution.

For Tony Fuller, a Sierra Club lead volunteer who has been working to replace Chicago coal plants with clean energy for five years, the victory is as good as it gets.

"We worked on long time on this. Chicago has a number of community groups that had organized specifically around local environmental issues," he says. "They were talking with the community directly. The problem was getting the attention of City Hall. When we all came together and created a coalition and fought the power plants in unison, that's when we were gaining momentum."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with activists.

The Fisk plant began operating during the Roosevelt administration ... the Theodore Roosevelt administration -- that's how old and dirty it was. The Crawford plant began operating in the 1920s. Over the years the plants provided little protection for residents as Chicago grew. With many Latino and African American families nearby, it became a question of environment justice.

"There would be high ozone days where you could feel it. And especially for those with their children, mothers would talk about the asthma effects that their children would have," Tony says. "We had members who weren't even from the community affected after moving to Chicago. They'd say they could feel the difference in the air quality and their general ability to go outside."

Traditionally Big Coal had the blessings of Chicago politicians. But Tony noticed the tables turning early last year when Councilman Danny Solis, who was running for reelection, threw his support behind the city's proposed Clean Power Ordinance, which was designed to reduce harmful emissions.

"He did a complete reversal," Tony recalls. "He kept running into constituents who asked him why he opposed the ordinance. And when you're running for reelection, it's hard to ignore that."

The historic victory has reverberated across the country.

"We don't have to wait for Congress,'' Bruce Nilles, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign Director told the Chicago Tribune. "If we can shut two coal plants down in Chicago, what is stopping us from methodically going community by community, state by state, and achieving the same pollution reductions we would have if we'd passed a climate change bill back in 2010?"

Activist Cheryl Johnson speaks at a rally outside Chicago City Hall earlier this year. She's the daughter of Hazel Johnson, known as the "mother of the environmental justice movement," who died last year.

Chicago activists have the wind at their backs. The two coal plant retirements coincided with the governor's veto of a bill that would have allowed the energy company Leucadia to build a coal gasification plant in the city's Southeast area and raise rates.

"There's a perception that Illinois is a coal state and there are forces that want to subsidize coal use in the state. By having this campaign organize against the Fisk and Crawford plants, we were able to mobilize easier against the Leucadia site," Tony says.

The focus now shifts to the November ballot. Chicago voters will get the chance to approve an energy aggregation system that could boost clean energy and lower costs for consumers.


"We are trying to enlighten and inform as many people as possible on this, and of course, we only have a few months to do it," said 20-year Sierra Club activist Rose Gomez, who also spearheaded efforts to switch the city from coal. "Our coalition is made up of nearly 20 different organizations and everyone is reaching out and working with the same effort to get to as many votes as possible."

Tony Fuller and Rose Gomez.

Congratulations to our amazing organizers and activists in Chicago!


Images courtesy Tony Fuller.


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