CHICAGO - "We deserve clean air in our neighborhoods, and we're tired of the pollution," said 18-year-old Luis Vega June 15 during a protest here against two local power plants he says are the leading cause of pollution.
Vega was joined by dozens of other students, calling themselves the "Anti-Pollution Revolution," from area high schools in the predominantly Mexican-American Pilsen neighborhood, where the action took place near one of the plants.
"This is extremely important not just because of the pollution, but this is about inequality," said Jimena Castorena, 19, one of the young activists. She notes the Midwest Generation-owned Fisk Coal Plant and the H. Kramer & Co. Brass and Bronze Smelting plant are located in two of the city's predominantly Latino southwest side neighborhoods. "If these plants were in any other neighborhood, the residents would not allow it," she said. "We deserve equality and clean air like any other affluent community."
The students, including members of local environmental justice and community groups, are urging the City Council to pass the Clean Air Ordinance, which would force the two power plants to reduce the pollution produced by 90 percent. They add the Pilsen-located H. Kramer & Co. plant is the main contributor to high levels of lead in the air.
Activists say dozens of people every year get sick and even die from the pollution produced at the plants. The amount of pollution responsible for these illnesses, including the epidemic of asthma-related cases in the city, are unacceptable, they add.
Graham Jordison, an activist with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and reform Organization said all the students have to do is look out their classroom windows to see the smoke stacks rising in the air. "Everyday, these kids are out here playing or taking breaks from school and have to breathe in the dirty pollution," he said.
Action on the part of state lawmakers has been stalled, which is why we are demanding action at the city level, said Christine Nannicelli, 26, with the Sierra Club.
She notes more people live near these two plants and their polluted air than any other plant in the nation.
"We need the mayor and the City Council to address the air pollution of these plants immediately," she said. "They need to pass the city ordinance and make the plants clean up by forcing them to stop burning coal or shut them down."
Reflecting on the youth activism and the pressure mounting by the community, Nannicelli said, "I think we can win this campaign and the city is ultimately going to have to take some action. And it's our generation that's going to have to step up and make our voices heard on this issue."
Meanwhile, a new Sierra Club analysis finds that Latinos in the U.S., due to cultural, economic and language barriers, are at a higher risk for mercury pollution. The study includes previously unreleased data from the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi's 2008 National Survey of Latinos on the Environment. It suggests Latinos have much to gain from proposed new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on mercury - and much to lose if the coal industry keeps polluting.
According to the new analysis, 31 percent of Latinos fish regularly, and 76 percent of those eat and share what they catch with their families. These families include young children and women of childbearing age, the two most vulnerable population sectors to mercury poisoning.
The study notes by far the country's largest mercury source is coal-fired power plants, which in 2009 alone spewed more than 130,000 pounds of the toxin into the environment. Mercury poisoning occurs by ingesting contaminated fish. The mercury is brought down by rain onto waterways, where it becomes its most toxic version, methyl-mercury. The fish absorb it, and so do humans by ingesting the fish.
"Dirty coal-fired power plants threaten everyone's health, and this new analysis shows that Hispanics in the U.S. are at even higher risk," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, in a press release. "The Environmental Protection Agency can help clean up everyone's air and water and protect our children's health by adopting protections against mercury and other air pollution."
Exposure to mercury can contribute to birth defects, including neurological and developmental disorders, learning disabilities, delayed onset of walking and talking and cerebral palsy, experts say.
Photo: Pepe Lozano/PW