Pilsen activist, cancer survivor wants 'clean' Fisk and Crawford sites

Pilsen activist, cancer survivor wants 'clean' Fisk and Crawford sites
Fisk coal-fired power plant. Creative Commons photo by Seth Anderson

Leila Mendez took a moment to compose herself after she was handed the microphone and told it was her turn to comment.

"I'm a little emotional because this is a personal issue for me," she told the Mayor Rahm Emanuel-appointed Fisk and Crawford Reuse Task Force in Pilsen.

The panel held two meetings last week to gather public input on what to do with the Fisk and Crawford power plants once they close.

The lifelong Pilsen resident then told the task force and the public that she had survived two rare breast tumors, which she insists were caused by the carcinogenic emissions that spew out of the power plants' smokestacks.

Mendez said she has a sister with a blood disease, and another with thyroid problems. Both of them grew up in Pilsen, a community made up predominantly of Latinos and immigrants.

"I urge you to go back to [Midwest Generation] and tell them ... we need to do more for this community," Mendez told Doug McFarlan, a task force member and representative from Midwest Generation, which owns Fisk and Crawford. "Shutting down is not enough."

A few days later, The Chicago Reporter interviewed Mendez, a member of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, who, in the past, was asked by the organization to publicly share her story in order to compel the city council to pass the Clean Power Ordinance aimed at Fisk and Crawford.

The ordinance did not pass, instead Midwest decided to shut down--an even bigger victory for PERRO and other environmental groups--citing the high costs of adhering to economic regulations in the ordinance.

The Reporter asked Mendez if she felt Midwest Generation, or ComEd-- the plant's previous owner--should be held financially responsible for what she went through.

Yes, she said, but "it can't be proved."

Mendez is correct--legally, at least.

"With cancer and leukemia, and all these things that people may suffer, the problem is this causality thing: We don’t have the direct evidence," said Faith Bugel, a senior attorney at Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, which worked with PERRO and others in support of the Clean Power Ordinance. "With a car accident, for example, you have that direct evidence link. I can sue you because you’re directly responsible for hitting me."

"You can't go into court and say the pollution from the plants caused my asthma. There are so many sources of pollution. ...  The air quality is being affected not just by Fisk and Crawford, but by buses, trains, and other industry," she added.

Such is the case, Bugel said, even though numerous scientific studies have found that particulate matter--a mix of solid and liquid particles, which is the byproduct of combustion, or is formed when other pollutants interact in the air--can cause premature death, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, cancer and other developmental problems.

But a 2001 Harvard study estimates that, annually, 41 deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks, and 550 emergency room visits in Chicago can be attributed to pollution from Fisk and Crawford.

So, why can't Midwest Generation or ComEd be held liable in court?

"When you have these attributable deaths, you’re not really saying Crawford or Fisk killed grandma; you’re never going to go to the morgue and find someone with a tag on their toe that says he or she died from power plant pollution," said Jonathon Banks, a senior climate policy advisor at Clean Air Task Force, who co-authored a similar study on the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power plants.

Banks said that a complex, EPA-approved formula based on data that take into account population, epidemiological studies and numerous sources of pollution is often used when studies like the one out of Harvard are done.

"It is not a way to legally say that they [power plants] are responsible," Banks said. "You wouldn’t go into court with this. It's a way to gauge the health impact."

As for Mendez, she says she's not looking for a payday, anyway. Instead, she said she'd be happy if Midwest would just agree to pay to clean up the pollutants on the site--something they're not obligated to do.

They might not want to do so, either, seeing as how they're faced with the possibility of bankruptcy.

McFarlan, the Midwest representative and task force member, was contacted at his desk and on his cell for comment, but he did not return calls.

The power plants will close down in September, following a deal brokered by Mayor Emanuel earlier this year. Midwest is looking to sell the sites, but, at last week's meeting in Pilsen, McFarlan refused to say anything about prospective buyers.

Those in attendance offered a variety of suggestions for the future use of the Fisk site. Most popular, though, were calls for mixed-use facilities where jobs could be created and which might have some cultural or recreational element.

"I just want it to be clean," Mendez told the Reporter.

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