The Struggle for Clean Air in Chicago’s Southwest Neighborhoods

Marco Rosaire Rossi

The recent demolition of a smokestack in Little Village has exposed vast disparities in city environmental priorities. The demolition is only the latest explosion in a long history of environmental racism and private-sector handouts in Chicago.

Civilized man’s greatest achievement, the city, seems to kill everything but man, and rats and maybe flies. Grass and trees die, birds fly away, rabbits and squirrels move to greener pastures. Aside from the disturbances of normal drainage, the principle reason why life cannot go on in cities is the poisonous atmosphere which hangs above them.

Tom Edwards, “County Discusses Air Pollution: Politics has Some Bearing,” Daily Herald, February 14, 1963.

Nearly anything caught underneath the plume of dust and debris was affected. The historic neighborhood of Little Village, located southwest of Chicago’s downtown, was blanketed in a cloud of ash and smoke when a smokestack from a 95-year-old decommissioned power plant was demolished on April 11. The outrage from residents was immediate. Despite inessential activities being discouraged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not intervene to prevent the smokestack’s demolition. Throughout the neighborhood, there was fear that the smoke and air particles would exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms. It did not take long for that fear to turn into anger.

In the days following the demolition, neighborhood residents filed a class-action lawsuit in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The lawsuit targeted Hilco Redevelopment Partners, the company that is redeveloping the decommissioned power plants into a warehouse and distribution facility. The mayor’s office, wanting to avoid a political fallout, promised swift action. At a City Hall news conference, Mayor Lightfoot mandated a six-month moratorium on all demolitions in the city, slapped Hilco with sixteen citations—totaling $68,000 in fines—and ensured that there would be an overhaul of the city’s regulatory system and permitting process for demolitions. State officials also took note. The Illinois Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Hilco, and the state Environmental Protection Agency accused the developer of breaking air and water pollution laws.

While the mayor’s actions were encouraging, many environmental activists remained skeptical that they would lead to substantive change. The smokestack demolition was not the first time Hilco had violated environmental rules. In 2015, Hilco and its partners were fined by regulators in Maryland for a botched demolition of a retired still mill. As a result of a settlement, Hilco and its contractor were forced to complete $3.375 million in environmental projects and pay $375,000 in fines. Chicago appeared to be a repeat scenario, only with fewer consequences. The $68,800 in fines was pittances compared to the $19.7 million in tax breaks the city had given to Hilco, and the cry for greater community involvement in redevelopment plans—which activists initially advocated for when Hilco first bought the property eight years ago—was still going unmet. Kim Wasserman, of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Mayor Lightfoot’s actions were “too little, too late.” Without popular mobilization, Little Village residents had little reason to expect much of anything from either Hilco or the city.

The skepticism of Little Village residents is understandable. The predominantly working-class and Latino neighborhood has long been a victim of environmental degradation. The demolished smokestack was part of the Crawford coal power plant. For decades, Crawford—and its counterpart in the Pilsen neighborhood, Fisk—pumped noxious smog into the surrounding neighborhoods. Coal has served as a vital commodity for Illinois ever since it was first admitted into the United States. Its downstate coal basin remains one of the oldest and most productive in the country. Without it, Chicagoland would have never risen to become one of America’s major metropolitan regions.

At the same time, coal production is extremely toxic. Burning coal produces numerous airborne pollutants, such as lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Exposure to these substances can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma, along with damage to the brain and heart. To mitigate exposure to such pollutants, most contemporary coal power plants reside in rural areas. The fact that Crawford and Fisk were in highly dense urban neighborhoods was a modern anomaly. Both coal power plants are nearly hundred years old. They continued to operate due to a regulatory loophole in the 1970 Clean Air Act that grandfathered them in. Their continuance could only be explained through callousness.

Fully aware of the consequences, the owners of coal power plants refused to relocate their facility because doing so would negatively affect their bottom line, and Congress and federal regulators allowed it. Unsurprisingly, a study from the Better Government Association found that Little Village and Pilsen have some of the worst air quality of any Chicago neighborhood. 

For years, environmental and public health activists campaigned to force the Midwest Generation—the company that owned both coal power plants—to institute tighter regulations on air pollution or shut down. Their campaign had precedent. In the late 1950s, environmental activists convinced the Chicago City Council to pass an Air Pollution Ordinance. Enforcement was slow, but eventually, the rules of the ordinance required the city’s two coal power plants to switch to low-sulfur coal to mitigate the amount of sulfur dioxide in Chicago’s atmosphere. At the time, both the Crawford and Fisk power plants were owned by the city’s public utility, Commonwealth Edison. Because low-sulfur coal supplies needed to be shipped in from outside of Illinois—and was thus more expensive—the company stalled the transition. The company claimed that there was a shortage of low-sulfur coal; it could not meet the requirements without risking blackouts. Mayor Richard J. Daley capitulated to the company and granted them an extension on following the ordinance.

In response, the Campaign Against Pollution (CAP) was formed. Throughout 1970, CAP hounded Commonwealth Edison. It successfully mobilized thousands of Chicago’s residents against the company and threatened a citywide boycott of utility bills if the utility did not switch its coal source. Eventually, the city council passed an even stronger Clean Air Ordinance, forcing Commonwealth Edison to make the switch. As a result, the presence of sulfur dioxide in Chicago’s air plummeted.

In the 2000s, activists tried to repeat this success by getting the Chicago City Council to pass a Clean Power Ordinance. The ordinance would have forced the city’s two coal power plants to limit air pollution, convert to natural gas, or shut down. They had reason to be optimistic. They had the support of the 49th Ward’s liberal alderman Joe Moore and Mayor Richard M. Daley—the son of Richard J. Daley—had been amendable to environmental issues. To beautify the city, Mayor M. Daley spearheaded an ambitious tree-planting campaign, promoted community and rooftop gardens, and dramatically increased the city’s public park space. Nevertheless, Mayor M. Daley’s green credentials stopped at the point of challenging corporate power. He did not want to take on Midwest Generation, who generously donated to local campaigns. As a result, the Clean Power Ordinance languished in committee purgatory.

It was not until the alderman of the Pilsen neighborhood, 25th Ward Alderman Daniel Solis, was forced into a runoff by a candidate criticizing his position on the coal power plants that the ordinance found new life. By the summer of 2011, it looked like the ordinance would inevitably pass. Two-thirds of the councilmembers openly supported the ordinance, including some conservatives and allies of the newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel. However, at the last minute, Mayor Rahm Emanuel managed to convince the city council to delay a vote on the ordinance in favor of direct negotiations between the mayor’s office and Midwest Generation. The maneuver killed the legislation, but the victory for Midwest Generation was too late. What activists were not able to achieve through government was eventually achieved through brunt market forces. In the summer of 2012, Edison Mission Energy, the parent company of Midwest Generation, announced it was filing for bankruptcy. As a result of the bankruptcy, the company agreed to close Crawford and Fisk coal power plants by September of that year.

While the closure of the coal power plants improved the air quality for those neighborhoods, it did not address the underlying issue. At the time, community activists put forth a plethora of ideas to redevelop the Crawford and Fisk plants, requesting that the city invest in a series of desired amenities for the neighborhoods. Such ambitious redevelopment plans would have required the city to purchase the spaces and were thus costly. Instead, the city left redevelopment to the private sector, Hilco agreed to purchase the plants, and the city attempted to direct redevelopment plans through zoning and permits.

Since Hilco have taken over the lots, activists have not been enthusiastic about what the company has offered. The company plans on turning the Crawford plant into a warehouse and delivery center. The project would bring jobs to the neighborhood, but concerns persist among environmental activists regarding air pollution from the increased traffic from diesel trucks. As for Fisk, Hilco plans on creating a large data center, but the project is in regulatory and financial limbo. Partly, this is because—despite the coal power plant closing—a small diesel-powered plant used to level-off peak demand for the city still operates on the location. While the pollution from the small diesel-plant is relatively minimal when compared to other fossil fuel plants, it continues to contribute to the neighborhood’s historically poor air quality.  

On its face, using zoning and permits—rather than public investments—to direct development appears as part of the municipal status-quo. The city uses zoning and permits to manage the development plans for all of Chicago’s neighborhoods; why should these neighborhoods be treated any differently? But the reality is that some neighborhoods have been treated differently. The residents of Pilsen and Little Village know all too well that while certain neighborhoods have been victimized by the market, others have been protected from it.

Among American cities, Chicago ranks as one of the lowest major metropolises in terms of walkable green space. The majority of green space that does exist is located on the city’s northeast side. These large parks, created near wealthy neighborhoods, were a product of massive public investments by both Mayor Richard J. Daley and his environmentally conscious son Mayor Richard M. Daley. Through generations of green beautification, including aggressive gentrification, Chicago’s wealthy—and predominately white—northeastern and downtown neighborhoods were redesigned to include large and luxurious green spaces, easy access to Lake Michigan, and of course some of the cleanest air in the city. Many of Chicago’s early environmentalists fought hard for better parks and air quality, but only for their own neighborhoods and often as a means to boost real estate values. Outside that territory—where poor black and brown people lived—people were left to fend for themselves.   

This disparity is behind much of the outrage regarding the botched demolition of the Crawford plant smokestack. The reality of Chicago, and the United States more generally, is that the mainstream environmental movement has made recreational access to nature a privileged reserved to a select few rather than a right for all. Chicago’s legacy of environmental racism could not have occurred without an equally culpable legacy of racist environmentalism. The city’s environmentalists fought for, and won, more parks and trees for some neighborhoods, but left other neighborhoods with ugly smokestacks and dirty air. The residents of Little Village understand that the type of careless demolition that happened in their neighborhood would not have occurred if the smokestack was located on the northeastern part of the city. Indeed, those neighborhoods would not have had to deal with a defunct smokestack from a bankrupt coal power plant to begin with.

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a political science graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His previous articles have been published in The Humanist Magazine, Z Magazine, and ROAR Magazine.