QUIT COAL Campaign Stacks Up in Chicago

Joel Handley and Miles Kampf-Lassin

Greenpeace's message in full effect, on Wednesday, May 25.By Friday afternoon, a Fisk Generating Plant employee (barely visible in white, at very top of smokestack) was making it clear that his bosses are not ready to quit their coal habit. (Photo by Carter Lashley)This year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule that, if implemented, would be the first national restriction on asthma-inducing, carcinogenic and life-threatening emissions (mercury, arsenic, etc.) from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Since it proposed the update to the Clean Air Act in March, the agency has been holding public hearings, offering everyday citizens, environmental advocates and energy industry lobbyists a chance to voice their support, research or condemnation of the rule.On Tuesday, May 24, a hearing in Chicago gave Midwestern environmentalists the opportunity to address four EPA representatives—and rally their supporters. The Sierra Club, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago Environmental Law and Policy Center, Greenpeace, Faith in Place, Environment Illinois and the Union of Concerned Scientists all helped to organize a gathering at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro Hotel, where the EPA’s hearing was taking place.The 11-hour hearing was mostly full of testimony by members of these environmental groups. One volunteer from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign called on the EPA to remember the children—including her own, who had to undergo nebulizer treatments for breathing problems—when deliberating over the emissions-reducing rule.The assistant attorney general of Illinois tasked the EPA to adopt national standards similar to state's rigorous regulations (which block 90 percent of emissions from leaving power plants) so that levels of mercury and other heavy metals can be reduced in Lake Michigan and other waterways.The EPA officials did their best to remain attentive and appear appreciative as the hearing continued—undoubtedly longing for the end of the endless proceeding as they nodded politely, took spare notes and asked a rare question.The only possible conflict came and passed without incident, as a coal industry lobbyist testified alongside a divinity student. The story of the divinity student—who also takes inner-city youth on fishing trips in the Chicago River— was particularly moving. She recounted how hard it was to explain to excited kids why they can’t eat the fish they catch for fear of poisoning, and why their government doesn’t care about the country’s rivers and wildlife.After she spoke, the anxious representative from the Ohio Coal Association addressed the EPA in a haughty, halfway angry tone. He blasted them for threatening the jobs of Ohioan, West Virginian and Kentuckian coal workers, warned that energy prices would soar and claimed that the new regulation could close up to 100 coal power plants. Some of the environmentalists present slyly smiled at his last prediction. The EPA nodded, took some notes, as they had done continually for the previous two hours, and asked him to submit the studies he referenced. There were no boos for, or even much acknowledgement of the lobbyist, from the audience. He slid out quickly and speechless and disappeared before he could be reached for comment.Meanwhile, outside the Crowne Plaza, The Sierra Club organized what they called a “buggy brigade,” a group of about 25 protesters, including mothers with strollers and many grandmothers, who made slow circles around a small Hellenic-pillared gazebo just west of the hotel, carrying signs like, “Clean Power to the People!” In the conference room next door to the EPA’s hearing, The Sierra Club held a press conference to an audience of supporters bussed in from Michigan.Theatrics and consequencesThe most exciting events of the day, however, took place across town, at the Fisk Generating Plant, a coal-fired power plant in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. As reported on this blog earlier in the week, on Tuesday eight activists from Greenpeace scaled the 455 ft. smokestack of the Fisk plant to protest the company’s continued use of dirty coal despite years of opposition from community groups and the heavily documented negative health effects on residents of the affected area.Since that piece was posted, a number of new developments have occurred. On Tuesday afternoon, eight different activists, also from Greenpeace, blocked the passing of a coal barge through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal by rappelling from a bridge over the canal. These activists were then arrested and charged with, among other things, “performing an aerial exhibition without a net.”On Wednesday, the activists on the Fisk plant spray-painted an enormous 100 ft. high sign on the smokestack reading “QUIT COAL” in yellow and red lettering. The sign, pictured at the top of this post, is visible from the heavily trafficked Dan Ryan expressway. While Midwest Generation, the company that runs the Fisk plant, has stated it will swiftly paint over the sign, as of this posting, the “QUIT COAL” sign remains.Later on Wednesday, facing dangerous thunderstorms, the activists climbed down the smokestack and were summarily arrested by Chicago police. They have since been charged with criminal damage to property, a felony, for the painting of the sign. Bail was set and posted on Thursday for all eight activists and by Thursday evening, they were released.While the occupation of the smokestack was short-lived, the action has harnessed massive media attention, both locally in Chicago and on the national level. Radical acts of this nature serve to raise awareness around the seriousness of issues like the effects of pollution on children (kids born in the Pilsen neighborhood have an over 25% chance of contracting asthma) and help to build public opinion in support of causes like the shutting down of aging coal plants.To comment on the EPA's proposed mercury and air toxic standards rule, visit http://www.regulations.gov or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) //= 0; i=i-1){ if (l.substring(0, 1) == ' ') output += "&#"+unescape(l.substring(1))+";"; else output += unescape(l); } document.getElementById('eeEncEmail_e6LnphjbYf').innerHTML = output; //]]> . To follow developing events on Greenpeace's Quit Coal Chicago campaign, visit the campaign's website.Late Update: The "Quit Coal" sign is currently in the process of being painted over at 4:00 PM CT on Friday. Pictures to follow.

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