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.

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.

No Coal: Clean Energy Should Be the Goal

A letter by Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association—a lead partner in the Clean Power Lake County campaign—appeared in the December 7, 2017, edition of the Lake County News-Sun.

Compared to NRG’s coal plant on Waukegan’s lakefront, WE Energies’ Pleasant Prairie coal plant two miles north of the state line is nearly twice as big, half the age and 10 times less polluting. Yet WE Energies is shutting down that power plant this spring and will instead install 1.3 square miles of solar panels in the area by 2020.

That cleaner, newer, less health-damaging coal plant is closing and Wisconsin will see thousands of new solar jobs. Yet Waukegan keeps NRG’s daily deadly pollution and tiny solar projects built for show on a few local schools.

The utility industry has changed dramatically and Waukegan is behind the curve. In 2012, 19 coal power plants ringed Lake Michigan. None had pollution scrubbers. By late 2018, 10 of those will have ceased burning coal. Four more will have installed modern pollution controls that slash lung-damaging emissions 80 percent or more. Of the last five, NRG’s plant is by far the largest polluter operating on 1,600 miles of lakeshore across four states.

Many Lake County leaders, from County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor and County Board member Mary Ross Cunningham to Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and Zion Mayor Al Hill, have signed the Lake County Climate Action Pledge, aiming to move Lake County beyond coal, adopt ambitious 100 percent clean energy goals, and build climate-resilient infrastructure. In order to protect the health and livelihoods of their constituents, all public officials in Lake County need to sign that pledge.

Source: Lake County New-Sun

The Lake County Climate Action Pledge is an initiative launched by Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor in partnership with the Sierra Club. For details about the central pillars of the pledge, see our September 17, 2017, Launching the Lake County Climate Pledge post.

Waukegan Beach Rally Focuses on Need for Countywide Transition to Clean Energy

More than 100 people who live near Waukegan’s coal-fired power say they are “Moving Toward a #CleanWaukegan” during Clean Power Lake County’s Annual Beach Cleanup. [Photo by Dylan Blake]
At time when the federal government has abdicated its role in climate leadership, Lake County residents who support local action against the climate crisis will gather at the Waukegan lakefront on Saturday, August 26, for the 4th Annual Clean Power Lake County (CPLC) Waukegan Beach Rally and Cleanup. We will join elected officials in focusing on the need to transition Lake County beyond coal in order to create new jobs in the clean energy economy and make sure Lake County’s communities are healthy for decades to come.

In July, Mayor Sam Cunningham and the Waukegan City Council responded to the climate crisis by passing a resolution committing the City of Waukegan to uphold the carbon reduction goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Waukegan is the only Illinois city with an operating coal plant to sign on to the agreement. The Waukegan coal plant, owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy, is the largest point source of carbon dioxide emissions in Lake County, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The coal plant also is a major source of water pollution, discharging more than 8 million gallons of tainted water, including coal ash wastewater, every day directly into Lake Michigan, according to Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County, a grassroots campaign supported by community, faith, health, and environmental groups.

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor will be the keynote speaker at the lakefront rally. The Republican official, recognized in 2014 as one of six rising stars in Illinois politics, has worked tirelessly to promote economic development and investments in transportation infrastructure. In December, at an event promoting a national documentary that featured Waukegan as a symbol of the debate over our country’s energy future, Lawlor said that redevelopment of the Waukegan harbor cannot happen with a coal-burning power plant on the lakefront.

Also speaking at the rally will be Angelina Jose, a Waukegan High School graduate who now attends Northwestern University. As an organizing fellow with Clean Power Lake County, Jose has spent the summer helping community members understand how Waukegan can become a leader in sustainability by saying “yes” to clean energy, sustainable economic development, and local job creation.

Event Summary
What: Waukegan Beach Rally and Cleanup
Where: Waukegan Municipal Beach, 201 E. Seahorse Drive, Waukegan, IL
When:  Saturday, August 26, 2017, 10 a.m.

The Waukegan Beach Rally and Cleanup is organized by Clean Power Lake County.

 

We Applaud Waukegan for Committing to Paris Agreement Goals

After over 4 years of climate/environmental advocacy, Clean Power Lake County members commend Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham and the City Council for committing to the Paris Climate Agreement and Compact of Mayors. [Photo by Dylan Blake.]
After more than 4 years of advocating a coal-to-clean energy plan for Waukegan, Clean Power Lake County and our partners now commend Mayor Sam Cunningham and City Council members for making a commitment to act on climate: On July 17, 2017, the Waukegan City Council unanimously passed a resolution committing the City of Waukegan to adopt, honor, and uphold the Paris Climate Agreement goals and authorizing the mayor to commit the city to the Compact of Mayors.

On the Monday night of the vote, 40-plus members of Clean Power Lake County filled the lion’s share of seats in the council chambers. We listened intently as council members voiced their votes one by one. When the eighth alderman said “aye” into the microphone, we leapt to our feet, clapping and cheering.

The City of Waukegan’s decision comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would exit the Paris Agreement. The central aim of the historic international climate accord is to keep a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Waukegan now joins 357 other cities that have committed to upholding the Paris goals and reducing carbon pollution locally.

Waukegan is the only Illinois city with an active coal plant to sign on to the agreement. The coal plant is owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy . It is the largest point source of carbon dioxide emissions in Lake County, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of U.S. carbon emissions. Reducing carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants was the signature policy of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, designed to meet reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

“Clean Power Lake County and our partners look forward to working with Mayor Cunningham and City Council in developing a climate action plan that moves Waukegan beyond our legacy of pollution and positions our city as a clean energy leader. This work lies hand-in-hand with the mayor’s goal to revitalize our lakefront and local economy and we encourage City Hall to not waste any time in getting started,” said Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts, co-chair of the Clean Power Lake County Campaign.

“Sierra Club applauds Mayor Cunningham and the City of Waukegan for their commitment to climate leadership at this critical moment in our country’s history,” said Julio Guzman, campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We look forward to working with Mayor Cunningham in developing a strong and just plan to reduce carbon pollution and bring new clean energy investments and jobs to Waukegan. After years of community members speaking out on climate change and urging Waukegan to move beyond coal, this marks an important step forward in charting a new course on environmental leadership for our city.”

Now let’s get to work and reach those goals. Click here to find out how you can get involved.

 

Clean Power Lake County Campaign Is Showcased in One Earth Film Festival

Clean Power Lake County activists and campaign supporters appear in “Years of Living Dangerously: Uprising," one of five environment-themed films to be screened in Lake County as part of the One Earth Film Festival.

Several Clean Power Lake County activists appear in one of five environment-themed films to be screened in Lake County as part of the One Earth Film Festival, March 4-11.

Dulce Ortiz, Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts, Sister Kathleen Long, Karen Long MacLeod, Julio Guzman, Celeste Flores, and Christine Nannicelli appear along with hundreds of campaign supporters in “Years of Living Dangerously: Uprising.” The documentary will be shown at 5 p.m. on March 5 at Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan.

In the documentary, actress America Ferrera follows Clean Power Lake County activists as, over the course of nearly a year, they collect and deliver petitions to the Waukegan City Council, journey to Springfield to advocate for clean energy policy that can provide green jobs, and appeal directly to NRG Energy to work with the community to transition its Waukegan power plant beyond coal.

Audience members will have the chance to meet local activists featured in the film, learn what Clean Power Lake County is doing to move Waukegan beyond coal, and talk with local leaders about how community members can work together to revitalize the Waukegan lakefront.

Here’s the line-up of Lake County showings:

The Lake County showings are free and open to the public. A $6 donation per film is appreciated. For more information, movie trailers and tickets, go to www.oneearthfilmfest.org/films-by-date.

The Lake County screenings are part of the Midwest’s premier environmental film festival. Local sponsors are Citizens Climate Lobby, Clean Power Lake County, College of Lake County, Faith in Place, Liberty Prairie Foundation, Prairie Crossing Charter School, Sierra Club: Woods & Wetlands Group, and Wild Ones: Lake to Prairie Chapter.

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.