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Chicago's Coal-Free Future: Clean Power Coalition Lights the Way

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In 1892, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune opined: "Doubtless the end of the coal, at least as an article of a mighty commerce, will arrive within a period brief in comparison with the ages of human existence... How long can the earth sustain life?"

A century later, a vibrant movement across the neighborhoods of Chicago is dealing with that very question and its devastating ramifications today.

As part of a "Coal-Free Future Week" in the Windy City, once hailed as the "world's largest coal market," a growing and determined clean energy and climate justice movement, including the Eco-Justice Collaborative, the Sierra Club, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the Topless America film project, and a broad alliance of citizens groups and organizations in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, are hosting multimedia theatre shows, "toxic tours," public forums, interfaith gatherings and a candlelight vigil to call attention to the fact that Chicago "ranks second among U.S. cities adversely affected by power plant pollution."

For the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the answer to that century-late question is blowing in the wind: Each day the Windy City spreads a layer of mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur and carbon dioxides, soot and particular matter across the daily lives of its residents. The goals of their campaign include:

Reduce emissions from the Chicago coal-fired power plants (specifically particulate matter and CO2).

Support increased renewable energy installations and energy efficiency in buildings citywide.

Advocate for green job development and training programs to install renewables, retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient, and manufacture components for clean energy technologies

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Consider this: The Fisk Generation Station in Pilsen, which has spewed nearly 50,000 tons of toxic pollution (along with the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village) over the past three years, was built before the invention of the Model T.

These two plants alone plague thousands of Chicagoans with lung cancer, heart attacks, premature deaths, acute and chronic bronchitis, and asthma and other respiratory illnesses. An estimated 318,000 adults and 122,000 children in Cook County have been diagnosed with asthma. The Physicians for Social Responsibility recently found that coal "contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases." The National Academy of Scientists totaled national costs of coal at more than $62 billion in "external damages" to our health and lives

Yesterday, area groups including the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the Sierra Club and the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, took health care professionals and aldermen on a "Toxic Tour" of the Little Village Neighborhood. The tour addressed the dangerous health impacts of the pollutants emitted by these industrial sites, and noted the need for a stronger USEPA Ozone rule to protect public health.

A follow-up forum on "Coal Pollution in Chicago" is scheduled at the Chicago Public Library - Lozano Branch on Saturday, March 20th, at 12 noon, and will feature Alderman Joe Moore, who plans to introduce an ordinance before the Chicago City Council that will require the coal-fired power plants within the city limits to clean up their emissions.

A special interfaith clergy breakfast will take place on Wednesday, March 18th, 9:30am, at the Fourth Fourth Presbyterian Church, on 126 East Chestnut Street, focusing on the issues of "faith, land and the coal industry."

Just this week, the National Council of Churches, representing over 40 million Americans, called on President Obama to end the reckless mountaintop removal mining operations in Appalachia, which provide part of the coal burned in Chicago's coal-fired plants. According to the NCC statement:

As Appalachia's communities and ecosystem suffers, we feel called by our faith to speak out against the unnecessary practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. We believe only God should move mountains. Closing the Clean Water Act loophole is a good first step.

The connection between Chicago's dirty coal-fired plants and the deadly extraction of coal from southern Illinois and Appalachia will be examined in the multimedia theatre production of the Coal Free Future Project, "Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal," on Friday, March 19th, 8pm, and Saturday, March 20th, 2pm, at the Conway Center, Columbia College.

Adapted from my new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, "Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal" brings the stories from the frontlines of the coalfields to the stages of Chicago, and around the country, exploring the staggering human costs of strip-mining and mountaintop removal, and underground mining, on coalfield communities.

For more information on this week's events in Chicago, check out the Eco-Justice Collaborative calendar.

Here's how to get involved in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition.