The War On Coal

Activists cite public-health hazards in a new campaign against coal. Opponents say cleaner is too costly

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The War on Coal

On a 99F July Sunday, there's no cooler place to be in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood than the public pool in Dvorak Park, where you can catch a fleeting breeze in this working-class, heavily Latino community. Unfortunately, the air in Pilsen isn't very cool--and it isn't very clean. Chicago's air on July 17 was so polluted that the government recommended that children and people with respiratory ailments--too common in a city that has nearly double the national asthma-hospitalization rate--limit their time outdoors. "People are getting sick in Chicago because of the air," says Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental-health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "And it's people who are living in neighborhoods like Pilsen that are getting the worst of it."

That's due in part to the 450-ft. brick smokestack that looms over Dvorak Park--the one the kids call "the cloudmaker." It belongs to the Fisk Generating Station, a 326-MW station just a couple of blocks from the park that's one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the country. Its corporate owner, Midwest Generation, says it has reduced pollution from the plant in recent years and that closing the facility would cost jobs, but Fisk is still viewed by environmentalists and activists in the city as a major health hazard.

A 2010 report by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), an NGO that focuses on air pollution, estimated that toxic emissions from the Fisk plant alone are responsible for 15 premature deaths a year and 200 hospitalizations. That's partly a result of Fisk's age--a grandfather clause in the Clean Air Act exempts older power plants in the U.S. from meeting some tougher regulations--but it also has to do with the fact that more people live within a mile of Fisk than any other coal plant in the country. Schools and playgrounds sit within sight of the smokestack. "You can feel it in your lungs when you live here," says Leila Mendez, a longtime Pilsen resident. "My hope is that it will just be closed."

If that happens, Fisk won't be the first old coal plant to shut down because of pollution concerns--or the last. The powerful coal industry--which provides nearly half the electricity used by Americans, along with 30% of U.S. carbon emissions and a smoggy chunk of the nation's air pollution--is being attacked by an insurgency of environmentalists, regulators and health advocates. In the wake of failed carbon cap-and-trade legislation last year and fizzling international climate talks, environmentalists concerned about global warming are taking on the coal industry from a different angle: public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on a series of long-delayed regulations under the Clean Air Act that, if pursued aggressively, could make life very difficult for Big Coal. And this summer Michael Bloomberg announced a $50 million gift to the Sierra Club's $150 million Beyond Coal campaign through his charitable foundation, marking coal pollution as the target of the New York City mayor's latest crusade. Bloomberg wants to turn coal into the new tobacco, to make it politically and culturally unacceptable because of the damage it does to everyone's health. "This is a public-health issue, just like our efforts to stop smoking or help with malaria," Bloomberg told TIME. "The pollutants and toxins are a big problem."

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