Plans for former coal plant irk Pilsen activists

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

This story has been revised to reflect the status of Hilco’s relationship to the former Fisk site.

Seven years after Pilsen residents celebrated the closure of the Fisk coal plant, activists are gearing up for a new campaign: to demand input in the site’s redevelopment and oppose the continued operation of diesel-fired “peaker” plants.

Hilco Global has been in talks to buy the former Fisk Generating Station, where it wants to open a 350,000-square-foot data center. Data centers house computer servers and require lots of energy and water for cooling, raising concerns about how the site will be developed in an eco-friendly manner. Thus far, activists contend they haven’t been included in those deliberations.

Rosa Esquivel, board president of the activist group Pilsen Alliance, said she wants to see Hilco commit to environmentally friendly practices, perhaps installing solar panels or adding green space at the data center. She also said Hilco should provide green jobs to people who live in the area.

Most importantly, Hilco should keep the community informed throughout its planning and allow for residents’ input, Esquivel said.

“It’s kind of disappointing, you know, that older people have worked so hard for something, and then it’s like we move one step forward and then two steps back, right?” she said of the new crop of worries.

Hilco did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Activists also have come out in opposition to eight diesel-fired “peaker” plants that remain at the site. The new owner of the peakers, NRG Energy, wants them to continue operating.

The peaker plants, which Midwest Generation sold to NRG Energy after Fisk closed, have residents worried about air pollution in the neighborhood, which is predominantly Hispanic and has a history of environmental issues affecting residents’ health.

Peaker plants only operate when energy needs “peak.” When Chicagoans’ demand for energy hits a certain threshold, the Pilsen peakers kick on and contribute energy to the power grid. The plants in Pilsen burn diesel fuel, which can result in emissions of particulate matter like soot. Soot has been linked to chronic bronchitis, worsened asthma and heart attacks, according to the D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

But David Knox, a spokesman for NRG Energy, said the peakers serve an important purpose.

“The peakers at Fisk site serve a very important reliability role, usually only operating when demand is at the highest and there’s a risk of running out of power,” he said, adding that the emissions are minimal in part because of how infrequently the peakers run.

Knox also said the peakers use low-sulfur diesel fuel, a cleaner-burning diesel fuel according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Health issues resulting from toxic air emissions were a key concern when activists were fighting for the Fisk shutdown years ago.

Esquivel told me that when she moved to the neighborhood in 2004, she heard stories from people who were encountering symptoms typical of exposure to air pollution.

“I started talking more with people and I realized that there were a lot of people around the area actually where I live, on Cullerton and Morgan, that a lot of their children were experiencing asthma or other respiratory issues,” she said.

At the time, she didn’t know that air pollution could be causing those problems. But as movements ramped up to challenge Fisk’s operations, air pollution and the health problems it can cause became more widely understood.

More than a decade ago, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, or PERRO, fought tooth and nail to get Fisk shut down. Joshi Radin, who joined PERRO last fall, said the group has mounted opposition to the operation of the peaker plants.

“I want there to be no fuel combustion in an urban neighborhood that is densely populated and is already plagued by a legacy of historical environmental injustice,” she said. About 35,000 people live in Pilsen, according to U.S. Census data.

Radin said she was concerned about the peaker plants adversely affecting the health of children, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions in the area. Those populations stand to be harmed the most if living in close proximity to diesel polluters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PERRO submitted comments to the Illinois EPA opposing NRG Energy’s request for an air permit renewal, which the EPA said it is still reviewing.

In addition to opposing the continued operation of the peakers, PERRO proposes that “a large battery storage unit be deployed with the capability to absorb excess energy from the grid when that is necessary or to inject energy into the grid when that is needed.”

The activist group also has called for Hilco to involve the community in its planning for the site.

Update: On Thursday afternoon, a representative for Alderman Danny Solis said Hilco had purchased the former Fisk site. But according to NRG Energy, “Midwest Generation has an agreement with Hilco Redevelopment Partners allowing the real estate firm to explore the potential for redevelopment of the Fisk site.” The reason for the discrepancy was unclear. Hilco again did not immediately respond to a phone call and an email.

Just a few miles to the west, Little Village residents are facing a similar predicament. Hilco also bought the former Crawford coal-fired plant — which Midwest Generation closed at the same time as the Fisk plant — and intends to build a logistics hub there. That means lots of diesel-fired trucks moving in and out of the site.

Activists there have taken issue with the plans, arguing that they weren’t consulted and that the increased diesel pollution from truck traffic would harm the health of people who live nearby. Last Wednesday, the City Council approved a $19.7 million tax break for the company.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO, is working to confront Hilco over those plans. Those activists say that the company so far has fallen short of expectations to keep them in the loop.

But because of LVEJO’s negotiations with Hilco over the Crawford site, PERRO members like Radin can have an idea of what to expect for working with the company on Fisk.

“Due to the Crawford site, they’re sort of one step ahead of us in dealing with Hilco,” Radin said.

She said that so far Hilco has not engaged Pilsen residents on its plans, and that’s where PERRO is focusing its efforts in the weeks ahead.

“Whatever they’re coming in and doing, I want them to keep the interests of the community in mind and the health of the community in mind,” Radin said.

Photo at top: The former Fisk generating station overlooks Cermak Road in Pilsen. (Lauren Robinson/MEDILL)