In a basement, brightly lit and with a short ceiling lined with Aztec style paintings, a group consisting of the young and old struggle to save the health, even the lives, of their neighbors. Ian Viteri is among the members of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. He is short, with a smooth mop of hair and dark, attentive eyes.
When he speaks about the struggles he’s gone through in the last year, the almost triumph and ultimate disappointment, Viteri smiles occasionally and says he is still determined to move forward. But when he talked about the meetings he’d have to attend this past weekend, the exhaustion is evident in his voice.
This past weekend was an important turning point in the local clean power fight as the environmental groups had a meeting to plan their next step.
“I’m not really looking forward to it,” said Viteri, who will be presenting the yearlong story of the stalled Clean Power Ordinance to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, of which LVEJO is a member. After a great effort by the coalition over the past year, the ordinance was presented to an environmental and health co-committee in the city council, but a filibuster delayed it until after the new city government settles in.
“You know. Chicago politics,” said Viteri.
Viteri, 24, is a community organizer for LVEJO. Viteri works on several of the group’s projects, but passing the Clean Power Ordinance has been one of his and LVEJO’s major goals.
Bryan Urbaszewski, a representative from a local respiratory health organization, said that the ordinance would require a greatly reduced amount of fine particulate matter (soot) in the air and half of the carbon dioxide output from each of two coal power plants in the Little Village neighborhood. Midwest Generation runs both of the plants and has opposed the changes–through political donations to alderman and other tactics– because of the huge cost of the modifications, said Viteri.
Multiple studies have been done showing that the pollution produced by the plants has caused, and continues to cause, many health problems in the surrounding areas. A study published in 2002 by the Harvard School of Public Health linked the pollution to over 40 deaths and many more emergency room visits and asthma attacks every year.
Viteri grew up in the Little Village neighborhood, where the two coal plants have been running since long before he was born. Midwest Generation, a part of the much larger Edison International, employs around 200 people at the plants, but Viteri says that most of the employees do not live in the area. The coal plants were “grandfathered” in past the 1977 Federal Clean Air Act, meaning the plants’ age pardoned them from the new regulations, said Viteri.
Viteri and the rest of coalition had organized marches, gone door to door and handed out fliers among other tactics to gather enough support to pass the ordinance.
Going into this weekend’s meeting, Viteri said that one of the big issues was whether the coalition would settle on allowing the coal plants to just switch to natural gas, an expensive process that would nonetheless meet all the ordinance’s requirements, or if they should push for more. Urbaszewski said the outcome of the meetings wouldn’t be made public yet, as it was an internal meeting.
Viteri said he would prefer the plants were transformed into green job schools, because of the environmental concerns of natural gas mining.
Urbaszewski said that his organization only has concerns and expertise in terms of health aspects, and fully supports the use of natural gas as an alternative.
Although there are concerns about differing concentrations, the main issue going into the meetings was how much effort each group would put into continuing to push for the ordinance. Viteri did not give a definite answer in that regard, as the memory of the failure to pass the ordinance weighed heavily on him.
“It was a horrible experience,” said Viteri.
He and other supporters arrived confident and excited to the committee in February, but they found it already almost full of employees of coal plants owned by Midwest Generation. Jerry Mead-Lucero, an organizer with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, another group in the coalition, put it bluntly.
“We got our asses kicked,” said Mead-Lucero.
He expressed full confidence in the ordinance passing in the next six months, but said it depended on the coalition continuing to pressure the local alderman for it.
“We got closer than ever before this year. The chances are pretty good to get it passed,” said Mead-Lucero.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) has been a supporter for the ordinance throughout much of its existence. He said the new elections bode well for the coalition’s goals.
“Now that we have a new mayor, he has more awareness of its importance,” said Moore.
He said the ordinance might be presented to the city council as early as July 6.
Viteri didn’t hold the same optimism. He spoke fast and effortlessly about his planned work with the local youth, but he paused more often when talking about the future of LVEJO and the Clean Power Ordinance, and especially about the failed committee hearing.
“It is a long process. A lot of pinky ring kissing. Chicago politics,” said Viteri.
Midwest Generation could not be reached for comment.