Greenpeace Climbers Scale Chicago Coal Plant

The effort to shut down Chicago’s two coal plants literally climbed to new levels on Tuesday, as eight activists from environmental watchdog group Greenpeace scaled the smokestack of the coal-fired Fisk Generating Station power plant.  The activists spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday morning hanging from the 450-foot high smokestack, while painting the phrase “Quit Coal” in giant letters.  The action was part of an ongoing campaign led by Greenpeace and other national and local environmental groups, focused on cleaning up air pollution by replacing both of Chicago’s coal plants with clean energy.

On Tuesday afternoon, while the paint job on the smokestack continued, eight more Greenpeace activists rappelled off a bridge near Chicago’s other coal-burning power station, the Crawford Plant.  They unfurled a banner with messages in both English and Spanish.  The English translation read “We Can Stop Coal.”  The dangling banner prevented a coal barge from moving down the river on its way to the Crawford Plant.

Both the Fisk Generating Station and the Crawford Plant are among the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the United States.  Because the plants are located in a highly populated area, they also expose more people to pollution than any other coal plant in the country.  Approximately one in four Chicago residents are potentially impacted by the health effects of pollution from the coal plants, and a study released in 2010 found that in the last eight years the coal plants were responsible for $1 billion in health damages.   

All this has put Chicago at the center of a national campaign against coal plants.  If the local government can’t shut down these polluters, then it won’t bode well for the city’s professed commitment to becoming a leader in green industry.  At the same time, moving off coal in one of the most important industrial and economic centers in US history would represent a symbolically very great victory for environmentalists and public health advocates.  

To that end Alderman Joe Moore (a Chicago alderman is roughly equivalent to a city councilor) is sponsoring a Clean Power Ordinance—local legislation that would require the Fisk and Crawford plants to either install new pollution controls or shut down.  The ordinance received a hearing last month, but a vote on whether to pass it was postponed by the city government.  Greenpeace supports passing the Green Power Ordinance, and is also pushing coal plants’ utility owner, Edison International, to close the plants by the year 2013

Nationally coal plants are among the nation’s most important emitters of carbon dioxide, toxic mercury, and pollutants that cause smog and acid rain.  Environmental groups have thus made phasing out coal plants a climate and public health priority, and are pushing to have them replaced with cleaner sources of energy generation.  Over the last several years a coalition of groups led by the Sierra Club has defeated around 150 proposals to build new coal plants in the US.  Now environmentalists are moving on the existing coal fleet, with a focus on retiring the dirtiest offenders like the Fisk and Crawford Plants.  In response to public pressure as well as state and local legislation, utilities and energy providers have already announced retirement dates for around fifty of the nation’s 600 coal plants.

Shortly before 8:00 Wednesday morning, the Greenpeace Activists on the Fisk smokestack finished painting their message and descended from the plant.  However the memory of their daring climb won’t be easily erased: the words “Quit Coal” are now visible from afar on the side of the smokestack at the Fisk Station.  It’s a reminder of the way many Chicago residents have come to feel about their city’s reliance on coal plants that emit harmful pollutants, and which cause millions of dollars of damages in public health costs each year. 

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