Nov. 20, 2008 – On a chilly autumn morning at the corner of 31st Street and Kostner Avenue, young athletes competed for gold medals. Teams of three fought through the coal dig and leapt over the coal hurdle before sprinting to the bus dash, ending their journey at a cardboard cutout signifying a downtown museum.
No, this wasn't the Olympics, but instead the second running of the Coalympics, a competition in the Little Village neighborhood aimed at raising awareness of two nearby coal-fired power plants that pollute the city's skies.
The Crawford power plant
The Crawford Generating Station at 3501 S. Pulaski in Little Village and the Fisk Generating Station at 1111 W. Cermak in Pilsen are two of the handful of remaining coal power plants in the state. Both plants, owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California-based Edison International, lie directly in the way of the proposed 2016 Olympics, according to local activists.
Groups such as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), which hosted the Coalympics event, want both plants shut down for the sake of their community and the possible future Olympic games.
"This is not just for the Olympics, but it's for the people who have lived here their whole lives and are affected by it every day," said Alex Martinez, 17, who took part in the event. "For all of our voices to be heard, we need to work as a group to make this happen."
Statistics from the LVEJO link more than 40 premature deaths each year to power plant pollution, as well as 1,000 asthma attacks and 500 emergency room visits. The group says health conditions could worsen in the years to come, especially considering that more than 100 schools lie within a two-mile radius of a plant.
The Crawford and Fisk stations combined produce 230 pounds of mercury emissions each year, in addition to pumping out 17,675 tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, according to recent EPA estimates.
"If you look at the statistics, we need something now," said Samuel Villasenor, clean power community organizer for LVEJO. "Those numbers are just going to increase if we wait around and do nothing."
With over half the 95,000 Little Village residents under the age of 25, Villasenor knows action needs to be taken now. But he said the organization's seven-year-long fight will continue with a unique approach.
"We definitely need to be proactive and reactive," he said. "We need electricity, so we're promoting efficiency. If people can cut down on how much electricity they use, we would need to build less."
Kimberly Wasserman & Samuel Villasenor of LVEJO at the Coalympics
Villasenor and two-dozen other supporters gathered to hold the Coalympics, a short competition which saw youth contest three obstacles, all aimed at helping bring pollution issues to light. At the end of the games, three tie-dye t-shirt wearing competitors claimed the top prizes, which were gold-painted asthma inhalers.
The goal of the event, Villasenor said, was to build media interest and awareness of this ongoing issue.
Activists are now calling on the mayor to shut down the coal power plants and help introduce new forms of renewable energy to fill the energy void. This includes eco-friendly methods such as geothermal, wind and solar power.
"If our mayor claims to be as green as he really is, these are things that he should be indulging in his city to show off," said Kimberly Wasserman, a LVEJO coordinator. "So when the Olympics come, he can say, 'Look, not only did we shut down the coal power plants for the sake of our residents; we're trying our hand at renewable energy.'"
"That would put Mayor Daley on the cover of Time Magazine, if he could pull off something like that."
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