CPLC Environmental Justice Rally: Highlights

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Activists representing Waukegan’s immigrant, low-income, and working-class families came together for a rally on June 22, 2019, united in the hope that achieving social and environmental justice will help them build a healthier, more sustainable community.

Here are some highlights from speeches given at the rally.

Edgar Sandoval: Environmental justice

Environmental justice is a movement that seeks to broaden the social assumptions we have about what the environment is and who can be an environmentalist. Historically, mainstream environmental groups have framed the environment as something that existed over there, in nature preserves and national parks. Many people who do environmental justice work have reframed the environment to consider three arenas: where we live, where we work, and where we play.

Championed primarily by African Americans, Latinxs, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: People who live, work and play in the US’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color, immigrants, and living in impoverished conditions. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts—say, a landfill, a dirty industrial plant or a truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls environmental racism.

Environmental justice is about environmental racism. To address one requires addressing the other. Race is the commonsense ideology that explains difference based on biology. Racism is the exercise of unequal power relations on the basis of racial ideologies. In other words, racism is about power.

The US EPA is addressing five sites in the city of Waukegan through its Superfund program, which allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and forces parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work. Three sites are listed on the National Priorities List: Johns-Manville Corp. (a former asbestos manufacturing plant that operated from the 1920s to the 1980s) and Outboard Marine Corp.—both of which are along Waukegan’s lakefront—and Yeoman Creek Landfill. The other two sites—North Shore Gas North and South plants—are being addressed under EPA’s Superfund Alternative Sites program.

These various hazards indicate that the residents of Waukegan experience cumulative exposure to a range of toxins, which means that the effects of this accumulation of chemicals is not additive but exponential. This means that the harmful effects (feeling sick, for example) of one chemical are made a lot worse by the introduction of other chemicals into your body.

Andrew Rehn: Coal ash

I work for Prairie Rivers Network, a nonprofit based in Champaign that works to protect water, heal land, and inspire change in Illinois. Some of you may be familiar with coal ash. It’s the byproduct of burning coal. Coal itself has trace elements of toxic heavy metals, and those trace elements end up getting concentrated in the coal ash, which is then stored in large holding ponds.

At the Waukegan power plant just a few miles from here, coal ash has been produced for decades over the operation and is stored in two huge ponds. Worse, coal ash has also been historically dumped across the site in unmarked areas.

Last year, a report we released in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and Sierra Club showed that 22 of the 24 coal-fired power plants that we examined had groundwater above health-based thresholds.

The Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, Senate Bill 9, will force polluters to prove that they have the money to pay for cleaning up coal ash by requiring financial assurances. It funds the Illinois EPA to regulate coal ash with fees from polluters. It ensures that the public has a voice in the coal ash pond closure process. And it prioritizes environmental justice communities for cleanup.

We also won a major lawsuit, which began in 2012, that will hold NRG Energy’s subsidiary liable for the pollution at four of their coal-fired power plants, including Waukegan.

We’ve had a lot of good news, but there’s still more work to be done. Our coal ash bill is going to be drafted into rules—and the devil is in the details. We’re going to need continued grassroots support to ensure our bill becomes a good rule. And the lawsuit itself isn’t over—legal matters are never that simple. NRG’s subsidiary is found liable for their pollution. The next legal battle is remedy. We’re going to work to ensure that the coal ash is removed and stored in a safe location. I’m hopeful that we’re on the right track to solving coal ash in Illinois

Guadalupe Bueno: Coal ash

Canoeing with other Eco-Ambassadors last summer, we saw coal ash leaching into the beautiful Vermilion River, visibly discoloring the water and staining the sandstone.

In Vermilion, the coal-fired generating station was retired in 2011. The company fulfilled the minimum requirements for capping the three coal ash ponds, which are located feet from the river itself. Within five years, those ponds began leaching into the river, poisoning a scenic waterway that supports fish, animals, and farms as it flows into the Illinois River.

Seeing the Vermilion river made me realize that this could occur in Waukegan, as well. The NRG plant is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, which supplies our drinking water.

Daniela Lopez: Ethylene oxide

The most recent threats of breathing ethylene oxide (EtO) are the most recent example of environmental injustices being played out not only in our state but across the nation.

When EtO was identified as a concern in Willowbrook (Sterigenics)—a 77 percent white suburb with an average per capita income of more than $71,000 a year—US EPA officials met with residents almost immediately. They began monitoring air three months later and put a seal the plant three months after that.

In Waukegan (Medline Industries)—where the neighborhoods most affected are only 25 percent white and have a per capita income of about $14,000—residents learned about the dangerous chemical in the air from a newspaper article in November when our elected officials were informed of the elevated levels in August. Residents are still waiting for the US EPA and the Illinois EPA to act.

If you have been following these government agencies, you know that we have received the ambient air testing results for the first phase of testing. Unfortunately the results confirmed our suspicions that the levels of EtO are on par with those found around the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook, and at the highest 500 times higher than the EPA’s actionable limit for EtO (50,000 higher than the levels linked to an increase in rates of cancer). This is also the location closest to Alice’s Discovery Academy, a daycare center for children 6 weeks to 12 years old, and the Landings at Amhurst Lake, a large apartment complex.

Celeste Flores: Clean Energy Jobs Act

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is working to expand on the success of the Future Energy Jobs Act, advocating for more urgent active at the state level.

Our partner, Faith In Place Action Fund, is working to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act. This legislation would make Illinois a national clean energy leader by bringing the state to 100% renewable energy, a carbon-free grid by 2030, and a significantly cleaner transportation sector, creating jobs and economic opportunity throughout Illinois.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act also would:

  • Generate more than $30 billion in new infrastructure and thousands of jobs in the state.
  • Create an equitable distribution of economic benefits for communities that stand to gain the most through Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs and Clean Energy Empowerment Zones.
  • Increase investments and incentives for clean transportation and electric vehicle charging.
  • Grant more residents access to popular cost-saving community solar programs

The Clean Energy Jobs Act will ensure an equitable energy transition that benefits all of Illinois and doesn’t leave communities like Waukegan behind.

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CPLC Celebrates Passage of Landmark Legislation to Clean Up Coal Ash

Coal ash pollution seeps into the Vermilion River in central Illinois. [Prairie Rivers Network photo]

Clean Power Lake County joined a dozen statewide and regional partner organizations on May 28, 2019, in celebrating the passage of SB9, The Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, by the Illinois Legislature. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker for signature.

The groundbreaking bill addresses the many waste pits filled with coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, located all over the state:

  • Creates a regulatory framework to ensure polluters, not taxpayers, pay for needed closure and cleanup.
  • Guarantees public participation and transparency around cleanups for affected communities.
  • Provides the Illinois EPA the funds it needs to properly oversee closure and cleanup.
  • Requires Illinois to put in place standards for coal ash impoundments that are at least as protective as federal coal ash rule requirements, with additional protections against dust and water pollution.

Illinois — which has the highest concentration of coal ash impoundments in the country — now is the third state in the country to pass legislation providing significant coal ash protections above and beyond federal requirements. Virginia and North Carolina also are addressing coal ash through state-level legislation.

The NRG Energy coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront has two unlined coal ash ash ponds.

“The passage of SB9 out of the general assembly is a historic step forward for environmental justice communities across the state, like Waukegan,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “Environmental justice communities still have a long fight to assure community members have the basic human right of breathing clean air and drinking clean water. We call on Gov. Pritzker to prioritize the voices of a community like Waukegan and protect them from polluters like NRG Energy.”

“The passage of SB9 is a historical win for environmental justice communities throughout our state,” said Celeste Flores, with the Faith In Place Action Fund and co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “People of faith across Illinois applaud the leadership of our elected leaders in the Senate and House for taking action on coal ash contamination of our land and water and implore the general assembly to continue to hold polluters accountable for injustice, oppression, and environmental degradation.”

The Illinois EPA has found groundwater contamination from coal ash waste sites dating back to 2009. A 2018 report from environmental groups Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club analyzing data collected by ash dump owners under the federal coal ash rule found that 22 of 24 of Illinois’ reporting coal ash dump sites have unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in the groundwater.

We thank the many Lake County elected officials who supported this important legislation: State Senators Melinda Bush, Terry Link, and Julie Morrison; and State Representatives Rita Mayfield, Joyce Mason, Dan Didech, Mary Edly-Allen, Bob Morgan, and Sam Yingling.

We also thank everyone who signed petitions, made phone calls, and visited your elected officials. We are stronger together.

CPLC Supports Principles of Equitable Policy Design for Energy Storage

Solar panels and building.
Energy storage is set to grow dramatically, and community groups and policy experts believe we should be prepared. [Sabine van Erp/Pixabay photo]
This month, Clean Power Lake County joined 25 other environmental justice and grassroots organizations, policy experts, solar and storage industry representatives, labor, consumer advocates, faith groups, and renewable energy advocates in releasing the Principles of Equitable Policy Design for Energy Storage.

The principles are the outcome of a meeting organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists to discuss policies to spur deployment of energy storage and how to design policies that put communities first.

“When combined with investments in clean energy, storage has the potential to hasten retirements of coal and even natural gas plants across the country. This is critical not only for our climate and decarbonization goals, but also to improve air quality in frontline communities,” according to a May 8, 2019, blog post by Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Energy storage is a technology that is poised to expand dramatically in coming years. It has a wide range of potential applications.

Meeting participants focused on the types of uses for storage that would benefit disadvantaged communities. These uses include:

  • Replacing peaking power plants and fossil-fired plants
  • Keeping the lights on and bouncing back more quickly from power outages
  • Accelerating the development and integration of renewable energy on the grid

These principles can help state policymakers and advocates focus on solutions that ensure that the growth of energy storage improves all communities.

“Getting energy storage correct and equitable is critical as we move to more renewable energy, said Celeste Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County and Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place. She was one of several stakeholders who participated in the December 2018 meeting.

Clean Energy Jobs Act: Transformative Legislation

Dulce Ortiz at Clean Energy Day Rally, May 9, 2019.
Dulce Ortiz calls CEJA one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country. [Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC photo]

Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act (HB 3624/SB 2132) is one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country.

Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County, speaking at a May 9, 2019, rally for clean energy at the Illinois State Capitol, explains why:

It is amazing to see so many people from communities across Illinois here with us as we rally for the future we all deserve.

We are united by an unwavering commitment for Illinois to lead in addressing climate change. We are united by our commitment to power Illinois with 100% clean energy. We are united by our commitment to create quality careers in the clean energy economy and accessible to all communities — especially those left out of other sectors of our economy. And we are united by our commitment to transition beyond dirty fuels and to make sure that communities who carry the greatest burden of pollution and impacts from climate change are prioritized in this transition to 100% clean energy.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) is how we will get there.

Last year, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition conducted its “Listen. Lead. Share.” campaign, which included more than 60 community-based conversations on energy policy across the state.

We listened, and the input we received from those conversations formed the foundation of CEJA, one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country.

CEJA is built on a vision for a clean energy future for Illinois based on what communities across the state need and want:

  • A 100% clean energy economy by 2050 with quality jobs and new economic opportunities
  • A just transition beyond fossil fuels by 2030 so communities from Waukegan to Carbondale can have healthier and more prosperous futures for their children
  • More consumer savings as we double down on energy efficiency programs
  • Greater access to cleaner transportation and electric vehicles

This bill is about so much more than repowering Illinois with 100 percent clean energy. It’s also about transforming who holds the power in Illinois and building a sustainable economy that works for everyone — not just utilities and out-of-state energy companies.

That means that every part of the state — especially those communities that too often have been left behind — have access to the jobs and investments in the green economy.

CEJA works to build a sustainable energy economy that is no longer building generational wealth on the backs of underrepresented and environmental justice communities. Even when it may be politically challenging, we’re called to stand shoulder to shoulder with our black and brown sisters and brothers and our working class white brothers and sisters in Central and Southern Illinois to ensure this transition to 100% is just, helping to repair the legacies of pollution and divestment and deliver on the economic promise of clean energy.

CPLC Submits Formal Comments on Toxic Ethylene Oxide to EPA

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On March 27, 2019, Celeste Flores and Diana Burdette went to EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, to testify on the need to protect members of marginalized communities from toxic ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions. They spoke against the reversal of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information Systems data and urged EPA to follow its mandate to protect human health and the environment.

On April 26, they added their voices to those of many other environmental justice advocates by submitting their formal comment on behalf of Clean Power Lake County.

Key points in the comment:

  • EPA is using this rulemaking about hydrochloric acid production facilities to attempt to undercut the independent, scientific standard for ethylene oxide (which is causing extremely high cancer risk in many communities across the country), and EPA must abandon this attempt
  • Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution from hydrochloric acid facilities
  • EPA is basing its proposal for little or no regulation of hydrochloric acid facility emissions on underreported and underestimated data
  • EPA claims that hydrochloric acid facility emissions are “acceptable” but is ignoring many emissions and risks that would demonstrate greater harm that requires reduction
  • EPA must consider and address the multiple and cumulative impacts that many communities face

Celeste Flores is Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County. Diana Burdette is a member of Clean Power Lake County’s EtO team.

Read our comments to the EPA.

Clean Energy Jobs Act: CPLC Supports Landmark Legislation

Illinois Clean Jobs Act press conference
Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County (fifth from left) and other partners in the Illinois Jobs Coalition introduce the Clean Energy Jobs Act in Springfield. [ILCJ photo]
It’s time for 100% clean energy in Illinois. Are you in?

Clean Power Lake County is definitely in! We are proud to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act (HB 3624/SB 2132), which would set a path for Illinois to be 100% powered by renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and invigorate the state’s clean energy sector in an equitable way.

Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, explains why this bill is so important:

Communities like Waukegan deserve a clean energy future and it’s time for the state of Illinois to be a leader and pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act!

For far too long, frontline communities have historically borne and, to this day, continue to bear the greatest brunt of injustice when it comes to the environment. This legislation says that that no community should be left behind as Illinois builds up its clean and renewable energy economy.

We can do this!

One of the pillars on this bill is to achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2030.

This bill directs the Illinois EPA to begin a comprehensive stakeholder process to reduce harmful pollution from power plants to zero by 2030.

Many coal plant communities around the state have suffered the impacts of coal pollution just like Waukegan. A responsible transition beyond coal would address the largest point source of carbon pollution in Lake County, which is located on the Waukegan lakefront.

We recognize that there are real people, our neighbors, who have worked for years in the fossil fuel industry. That is why this bill calls for the creation of Clean Energy Empowerment Zones, to support communities and workers who are impacted by the decline of fossil fuel generation.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act — introduced February 28, 2019, by partners in the Illinois Clean Jobs coalition — would move Illinois to 100% renewable energy by 2050, cut carbon pollution from the state’s power sector by 2030, and create steps to electrify the transportation sector. At the same time, the legislation would help keep a lid on energy bills and lead to economic benefits, especially in the form of new jobs, for communities that need them the most.

The bill was drafted with the input of communities across the state, including participants in more than 60 “Listen. Lead. Share.” events.

Currently, the Clean Energy Jobs Act is working its way through House committees in the Illinois General Assembly.

Help us pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act (HB 3624/SB 2132). Tell your legislator to vote YES!

Want more information?

Speaking on Environmental Justice Issues at Illinois Civil Rights Hearing

Eight members of the Clean Power Lake County Campaign attended a March 9, 2016, hearing held by the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to tell how pollution from NRG Energy’s coal-fired power plant disproportionately affects minority and low-income residents in Waukegan.

Representing Clean Power Lake County and its coalition partners were Dulce Ortiz and Peggy Jones of Waukegan; David Villalobos, Waukegan Fourth Ward Alderman; Celeste Flores of Most Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish (Waukegan); Susana Figueroa of Faith in Place; Brian Urbaszewski of Respiratory Health Association; Barbara Klipp of Incinerator Free Lake County; and Christine Nannicelli of the Sierra Club.

Midwest Energy News published a good recap of the March 9 proceedings.

The Waukegan coal plant, which sits on the lakefront near a predominately Latino neighborhood, is the largest source of air and water pollution in Lake County. The plant was named one of the nation’s worst environmental justice offenders in a 2012 NAACP report.

Clean Power Lake County is concerned that pollution from the coal plant is impairing air and water quality and contaminating soil. The plant also reduces access to open space.

The findings of the Illinois Advisory Committee will support the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ 2016 federal statutory enforcement report on environmental justice.

“As the product of an Illinois community that has suffered from environmental racism, I commend our Illinois Advisory Committee for addressing this issue. This will ensure that affected Illinois communities will be a prominent part of our national report to the President and Congress on environmental justice for communities of color,” said Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency charged with studying and advising the President and Congress on civil rights matters and issuing federal enforcement reports.

For information about the reports and meetings of the Commission and its State Advisory Committees, visit www.usccr.gov.