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.

CPLC Denounces Illinois Bill Seeking to Criminalize Protest

Celeste Flores (right) joined several social justice and environmental activists at a downtown Chicago press conference on April 25, 2019, to denounce Illinois HB 1633. The bill would silence environmental activists and protect the fossil fuel industry. [The People’s Lobby photo]
Clean Power Lake County is denouncing Illinois HB 1633, a bill designed to silence environmental activists and protect fossil fuel industry profits by threatening steep fines, felony charges and lengthy jail sentences for activists who exercise their freedom to protest deadly pollution and carbon emissions.

Opponents of the bill, dubbed the “Guilty by Association bill,” include social justice, environmental and faith-based groups: ACLU, Action Now Institute, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, Chicago Jobs with Justice, Faith in Place, Fox Valley Citizens for Peace & Justice, Illinois Environmental Council, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), National Lawyers Guild, Natural Resources Defense Defending Rights & Dissent, Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, People’s Action, SOIL Save Our Illinois Land, Sunrise Movement Chicago, The People’s Lobby, the Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

At a downtown Chicago press conference on April 25, 2019, activists said HB 1633 would discourage people from exercising their right to free speech by significantly increasing punishments for activities that are already illegal under current law. And that would clear the way for fossil fuel companies to expand pollution across Illinois, especially in communities of color.

Communities of color suffer the worst pollution by dirty energy companies. They also contend with over-policing and disproportionate rates of incarceration.

“As we all know, African American and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by corporate polluters and Waukegan is no different. We have a coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront that is the largest polluter in Lake County, Illinois. Our black and brown sisters and brothers have to deal with the health effects of this pollution and, most concerning, a report done by the Lake County Health Department showed that in Waukegan 1 in 3 children have asthma or asthma-like symptoms, which is well above the national average,” said Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County.

Want to protect your right to assemble? Sign the IEC petition.

 

 

Lawlor and Schneider Commit to Clean Power in Lake County

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois’ 10th District recently wrote a joint guest column in the Lake County News-Sun to express their commitment to delivering bold, local action on climate. They also expressed support for the guiding principles of the Lake County Climate Action Pledge, an initiative launched in August  in partnership with the Sierra Club.  

This July, Lake County was hit with the worst flood in recorded history, inundating neighborhoods and businesses. It was the second time in five years a major flood event triggered a county and state disaster declaration. Just weeks later, California was ravaged by wildfires and southeastern coastal states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were battered by three devastating hurricanes that devastated so many lives and impacted local economies.

The frequency and severity of major weather events are an unmistakable warning of the escalating impacts of climate change around the globe and here at home. President Trump’s cynical exit from the Paris Climate Accord and Congress’s stubborn refusal to act leaves our economic future more uncertain and the destruction of our environment more rapid.

In these unpredictable times, we can’t count on the White House or State House to deliver bold leadership. Tackling climate change will require leaders that cross party lines and generational divides. That’s why we, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, are standing together to advance bold local action on climate change with the help of local leaders and grassroots organizations.

In August, we proudly joined with the Sierra Club to launch the Lake County Climate Action Pledge on the shores of Lake Michigan with a diverse, bipartisan and passionate group of environmental champions ready to take on climate change in our own backyard by:

— Creating a responsible transition plan beyond coal, which would address the largest point source of carbon pollution in the county on the Waukegan lakefront.
— Making a long-term commitment to pursue 100% renewable energy that delivers consumer savings and new jobs for our local workforce.
— Building green infrastructure that incorporates plans for sustainable transportation.

Advancing these priorities will demonstrate that reducing carbon pollution and increasing economic opportunity can go hand and hand. By committing ourselves to these goals we can reduce some of the most avoidable public health threats our area faces and enhance quality of life for all of our neighbors.

President Trump’s direct attacks on efforts to tackle climate change at best ignore and, more dangerously, reject reality. And no argument is more disingenuous than the assertion that we must choose between growing our economy and protecting our environmental legacy.

The indisputable fact is that the clean energy economy is growing rapidly in red and blue states alike. In 2015, clean energy created jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the overall economy. It’s the lower costs of wind, solar, and natural gas that are pushing coal plants to retire at the same rate as before President Trump’s election and his Administration’s roll back of critical EPA protections.

We are inspired by the many local residents, youth leaders, pastors and parents have marched, lobbied, prayed and demonstrated that they have the courage to forge a clean energy future for Lake County. We are calling on our colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to show the same courage and join us in this important work.

We must come together to leverage new clean energy policies in Illinois and make smart investments in energy efficiency across public and private sectors. This is how we can finally begin to realize a future for Lake County where climate action and economic development go hand-in-hand; where cities and workers don’t have to react unexpectedly to rapidly changing economic forces but are prepared to adapt and seize new opportunities, ensuring no community is left behind.

Delivering bold, local action on climate will not be easy. It will require leadership across political parties, all levels of government, and the private sector. That’s the task we’re now called to, and if we as public officials can match the courage of our families and constituents, we know Lake County can lead the way.

Source: Lake County News-Sun

CPLC Helps Raise $5,200+ for Puerto Rico Hurricane Victims

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Clean Power Lake County joined forces with other environmental, faith and civic organizations in Waukegan and surrounding Lake County communities on December 7, 2017, to raise $5,236 to help Puerto Rico hurricane victims and highlight the critical need to act on the climate crisis.

The climate action event, held at the Puerto Rican Society in Waukegan, was hosted by Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor, Sierra Club, the Puerto Rican Society and Clean Power Lake County.

At the time of the benefit, more than 10 weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the majority of the island still lacked reliable electrical power and safe drinking water.

The ongoing needs of Puerto Rico residents, especially in light of inadequate response by President Trump’s administration, motivated people attending the benefit to act.

“I am determined to make a difference for Puerto Rico. Like a small grain of sand, from a small organization in Waukegan, I will make a difference,” said Lucy Rios of the Puerto Rican Society.

Among those making donations to help hurricane victims were members of the Waukegan High School JROTC. They presented $1,000 to Rios.

Community members also donated supplies such as bottled water, diapers, flashlights, and batteries.

“Hurricane Maria may have fallen out of the headlines, but our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico still need us to step up for them,” Lawlor said. “Frequent, severe storms like Hurricane Maria are unmistakable warnings of the escalating impacts of climate change. Washington’s failure to act leaves our economic future more uncertain and the destruction of our environment more rapid.”

In Lake County, 17 public officials have joined Lawlor in signing the bipartisan Lake County Climate Action Pledge.

Faith in Place, which works with houses of worship throughout Illinois to protect our land, air and water, is the first community organization to sign the pledge.

Other organizations participating in the event included Citizens Utility Board, Livable Lake County, Mano A Mano, Moms Clean Air Force, Sierra Club Woods and Wetlands Group, Waukegan Township, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

The Lake County News-Sun published a nice recap of the December 6 benefit.

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.

Launching the Lake County Climate Action Pledge

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At a time when the federal government has abdicated its role in climate leadership, public officials and residents across the country are stepping forward to take local action against the climate crisis.

Leading the way in Lake County, Illinois, is Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor. He recently launched an initiative in partnership with the Sierra Club to encourage local community leaders and public officials to deliver local, bipartisan action on the climate crisis.

“With vision and determination, Lake County can move beyond coal, toward a 100% clean energy future, and invest in fiscally and environmentally sustainable infrastructure. Climate action isn’t just an issue for our president to fail on or Congressional leaders to ignore. Climate action needs local leaders to step up and lead us forward, and it’s going to start right here in Lake County!” Lawlor said.

Lawlor announced the initiative, the Lake County Climate Action Pledge, before a crowd of 175 Lake County residents and public officials who gathered at the Waukegan lakefront for the 4th Annual Clean Power Lake County Waukegan Beach Rally and Cleanup.

The new initiative consists of three pillars:

  • Move Lake County beyond coal
  • Adopt ambitious clean energy goals
  • Build climate-resilient infrastructure

The solutions to these issues are related to solutions to serious social issues, said Dulce Ortiz, a Waukegan resident who spoke at the rally on behalf of the Sierra Club.

“We sit at an unprecedented and, frankly, dark moment in our country’s history that has to be spoken to—when the President refuses to denounce racism and white supremacy, when immigrant communities and Muslims are under attack, when the head of the EPA is a climate denier and is actively rolling back critical environmental policies, leaving us to protect our own communities,” Ortiz said. “These are not separate issues: They are absolutely interconnected and so, too, are their solutions. We are called to new levels of courage to speak out on these threats to our community and environment and to take decisive action at the local level in partnership with one another.”

Eight public officials have already joined Lawlor in taking the Lake County Climate Action Pledge:

  • Lake County Board Members Vance Wyatt, Diane Hewitt, Judy Martini, Mary Ross Cunningham, Sandy Hart, and Ann Maine
  • State Senator Melinda Bush
  • State Representative Sam Yingling

Both the Lake County News-Sun and Daily Herald published good recaps of the August 26 rally.