Just around the corner from the Perez Elementary School in Pilsen sits a century-old coal-fire plant.
Fifty-three year old Pilsen resident Leila Mendez comments, “I remember one time walking, and I couldn’t breathe, and it was just like a fog. That was the best description. It was just like a fog, a dense fog.”
Leila and her sister, Patricia, grew up in this neighborhood, watching the billowing smoke stacks, and breathing in the black smog as they played in the shadow of the plant. Now forty-three, Patricia says, “As a kid my mom was always rushing me to the emergency room because I always felt like there was something heavy on my chest and I’d have trouble breathing. Now it makes sense.”
Now, many Pilsen residents are raising questions about the plant and its potential tie to their health concerns. “Over 40 deaths a year, thousands of asthma attacks, thousands of emergency room visits based on the effects these plants have,” comments Jerry-Meade Lucero, who runs an advocacy group called Pilsen Environmental Rights Reform Organization – PERRO for short.
PERRO has taken the fight against the coal-fire plant from the streets of Pilsen to City Hall, pushing for the passage of the Clean Power Ordinance.
Alderman Danny Solis says, “PERRO has been anti-Alderman Danny Solis from the word ‘go.’” They have been dogging Solis for months, camping outside his office, going to election fundraisers, and criticizing him for taking nearly fifty thousand dollars in campaign contributions from the coal plant’s company. Mead-Lucero remarks, “If I was the person leading this community, I’d be very loathe to take money from a company that I knew was poisoning people’s health in our community.”
Solis even had a coal plant executive on his campaign finance committee, but then a funny thing happened after the February election. For the first time in his career, Danny Solis was forced into a run-off. Solis says, “I do think that this is the issue that kept me from that fifty-percent-plus-one.” Suddenly,
Solis flip-flopped and backed the Clean Power Ordinance.
When asked about his change in position, Solis says he believes the electorate spoke on Election Day, and now, he is following their wishes. In his opinion, the only ones who would say he is spineless are those who are generally “anti-Solis.”
Midwest Generation, the owners of the coal-fire plant, say they are disappointed about Solis’s new position on the Clean Air Ordinance. They believe this fight is about the politics of coal, not who’s the next alderman. Doug McFarlan, a senior vice-president for Midwest Generation, says, “You still need coal as an important and vital part of the electricity mix in this country, and this ordinance is really about shutting that down.”
Pilsen grew up around the plant. The plant has made changes over the decades, such as improvements in air quality and reduced mercury emissions. However, these are not nearly enough, says Solis’s opponent. “It comes down to families. It comes down to our health, and the alderman has known this all along but he’s been in their pockets. So it’s very simple here, whether you’re in the interest of the plant or to represent the interest of your constituents,” states Cuahutémoc Morfin, the alderman candidate who will face Solis in the April election.
As the run-off election nears, Solis can only hope he didn’t wait too long to back an ordinance that he believes is only symbolic and won’t stand up in a court of law. “Either way, I’m supporting. I’m going to take the lead on it, but there is a point to be said when the voters speak, elected officials should listen, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”