06/17/2011 09:46 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2011

Chicago Pollution: Pilsen Students Protest Coal Plants And Smelter After Grim Air Quality Report (PHOTOS)

As spiking levels of lead and other pollutants choke the air in a residential community on Chicago's Near Southwest Side, residents continue to press for change, while the Environmental Protection Agency underscores continued environmental hazards.

In the mid-morning rain on Wednesday, a group of high school students and community members led a protest against the pollution-belching plants in the largely Mexican Pilsen neighborhood. The protests came a day after another bleak EPA report on the neighborhood's air quality.

(Scroll down for photos of the student protest.)

Marchers directed much of their ire at the Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that has long been a target of environmentalists city- and nation-wide. The plant was built more than 100 years ago, and last rebuilt in 1958. It produces pollution vastly above the limits allowed by the federal Clean Air Act of 1977 -- but it was grandfathered in under that bill, so isn't subject to as stringent regulations as newer plants.

Just blocks from Fisk is the H. Kramer smelting plant, which a Chicago Tribune report earlier this year revealed is generating levels of toxic airborne lead well above health standards.

Three blocks north of the plants sits Perez Elementary School, where air quality monitoring devices were placed on the roof and detected the excessive levels of lead. Benito Juarez High School is three blocks to the west. The two thousand children who attend those schools breathe in the heavily polluted air every day.

And according to the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), the pollutants have caused grave health problems in the neighborhood.

"The numbers have been pretty consistent over the last ten years or so," said Jerry Mead-Lucero, a PERRO member who helped the students -- most of them from Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy, also in the neighborhood -- organize Wednesday's rally.

"The Fisk and Crawford [coal-fired] plants are responsible for more than 40 premature deaths, hundreds of emergency room visits, and thousands of asthma attacks every year."

A main objective of the march was to encourage the passage of the Clean Power Ordinance, which would demand that Fisk and Crawford, the city's other coal-fired plant, enact major reductions in emissions or else cease operations. That ordinance fizzled in City Council this April, thanks in part to a reportedly astroturfed opposition produced by Midwest Generation, the company that owns the plants.

Alderman Danny Solis, who represents the Pilsen area on the Council, long refused to support the ordinance, having received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from H. Kramer and Midwest Generation. When his opponent in this spring's city elections, Cuahutemoc Morfin, campaigned heavily on the issue and won significant support, Solis changed his mind, announcing that he would back the law.

Fisk drew some national attention last month, when a group of Greenpeace activists were arrested after climbing the plant's smokestack to demand less pollution.

Meanwhile, the day before the march, the EPA issued a statement on the lead findings from the rooftop of Perez Elementary, near the H. Kramer plant. It read:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today proposed approval of the Illinois EPA’s finding that parts of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood do not meet the new national air quality standard for lead. The decision is based on data collected from air monitors located in Pilsen. If designated as nonattainment later this year, Illinois will be required to submit a plan to EPA by June 2013 that will result in a reduction in lead emissions to bring this area into compliance with national air quality standards

H. Kramer could not be reached for comment.

See photos of the student-led protest in Pilsen on Wednesday:

Chicago Pollution: Pilsen Students Protest Coal Plants And Smelter