Into the inferno. In go the orange earplugs, and we step into the belly of the beast. The guide shouts to us over the roar of the furnace, but even with our ear protection in the place is clamorous–a coal plant is a noisy place. More than anything else, though, the heat is intolerable. Our guide wears heavy long pants and boots with a shirt and work jacket and appears perfectly comfortable. The furnace itself is 1000 degrees Fahrenheit; that we can stand a few feet away from it and survive is incredible and uncomfortable.
On a chilly spring day, a group from the University of Chicago went to tour the Crawford Coal Plant at 36th and Pulaski in the working-class neighborhood of Little Village. We hoped to find out what a coal plant looks like, how it works, and what it does in the world besides generate electricity.
Built in 1925, in what were then the outskirts of Chicago, the plant still looks antique, though all the functional electricity-generating equipment has been retrofitted or replaced since then. The conference rooms are shiny and new, but entering the working part of the plant is like going back in time. Everything is dark and sooty, and clanging machines do their work without much apparent supervision. Our guide takes us up 12 stories in an elevator. On the roof of the plant it is calm. The skyline glitters in the east, and below it on the plant’s property lies an enormous pile of coal. This is the emergency store, which Crawford keeps on hand in case the supply chain is broken. Usually, though, barges arrive daily on the Sanitary Canal loaded with coal from the company’s other plants in Illinois. The plant was built on the Canal in part because of this transportation advantage, and in part for cooling purposes; water is brought in from the canal and discharged a few degrees warmer. Besides changing the temperature of the Canal, the coal plants present other troubles to their neighborhood. Crawford and its partner plant Fisk are both owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, one of the largest electricity providers in the United States. According to local environmental organizer Ian Viteri, these coal plants are “cash cows” for Midwest Generation. Meanwhile, the neighborhood they inhabit, Little Village, has the highest rate of asthma in the city.
Viteri, the Clean Power organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) pins this squarely on the coal plants, which emit particulate matter that damages lungs, as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change. He came to LVEJO from other community organizing, including encouraging fine art and skateboarding after-school programs for kids in Little Village, and it’s easy to imagine him working with youth–he’s energetic, speaks quickly, and has a lot to say. Environmental justice for Viteri falls under the umbrella of social justice, and closing the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants is just another way to help people in his community. Viteri’s current job is focused on increasing regulation of the plants’ emissions. To that end, he and LVEJO as a whole are supporting an ordinance proposed by 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. He says that the Clean Power Ordinance, as it is being called, aims to improve air quality by regulating more strictly the levels of pollutants the plants can emit. Thirty different environmental groups in the city, including LVEJO, formed a coalition around this ordinance.
While Viteri would like to see the Clean Power Ordinance passed, his ultimate goal is to shut down the coal plants on the South Side altogether. He points out that the community does not use the electricity generated by the plants, gets no jobs from them, yet suffers all of the negative consequences of living in the vicinity of a coal-fired power plant. The electricity usage is debatable because the nature of the electrical grid makes it impossible to separate electricity from one plant or another, but Viteri claims that the electricity obtained from the coal burnt in the Crawford plant is sold east to Pennsylvania.
For Viteri and LVEJO, the environmental activism taking place in Little Village plays a part of much broader climate concerns. Last month Viteri went to Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, a summit which hosted delegates from many developing countries that were, according to Viteri, “underrepresented at Copenhagen,” during the UN’s climate conference held last December. During the Bolivian conference, representatives drafted a list of proposals for the next UN climate meeting in Cancun. Viteri attended as a member of a twenty-person delegation from the United States whose travel costs were paid by the Bolivian government, in part so that the visitors could see that climate change has already affected Bolivia. “Bolivia’s surrounded by mountains. A few years ago they all had snow, but only one had snow when I was there,” LVEJO sees their local project of shutting down the coal plants on the South Side as part of a broader, global project.
At first, descending into the plant from the cool day is a relief, and my body revels in the warmth. But as we wind down and down on grate staircases right next to the furnace, the heat becomes too much. At one point, the guide opens a small door into the furnace and we stare at the orange-white flames. Down, down. Once in a while we stop as the engineer tells us how something works, or what it is supposed to do. Frequently, he tells us something he could change or forget, finishing up with “if you do that, everybody dies.” Down, down, dizzyingly fast in the heat and the noise, until we are below the ground, watching a conveyor belt full of coal speed by on its way to be transformed into powder. The furnace burns powdered coal, not the large lumps that look like charcoal briquettes. The powdering allows it to be burned more efficiently and hotter. The more heat, the greater the efficiency of power generation. Though the conveyor is clearly modern, a man is sweeping the floor next to it and in the darkness of the plant it feels as though he ought to be bare-chested and shoveling coal into the grinder as fast as he can, sweating in the heat. We continue on, and eventually reach a tall chamber covered in beautiful tiles, with skylights. This houses the generators themselves. Here electricity is made: enough for a million households at peak production, and the reason for the entire rest of the operation.
At the end of the Crawford tour, I ask our guide about last October’s International Day of Climate Action protest at Fisk Power Plant, when more than 450 people rallied outside to urge President Obama to take bold action at Copenhagen, and Alderman Moore promised to introduce the clean power ordinance that is now making its way through the city council. Our guide pauses for a moment and says, “It certainly doesn’t feel good when everybody hates you. We, the industry and individuals, really care about being environmentally conscious, but I think people forget how important our product is.” Fluorescent lights hum as we leave the power-generating area and re-enter the office space of the plant. As the tour concludes, another engineer emphasizes their parent company Midwest Generation’s involvement in the community. They offer scholarships at area high schools, and he says they try to be good neighbors. We thank them for taking time out of their day, and head back out into the cold, ready to return to electrically lit offices and classrooms. As we leave, I look down and see that my hands are entirely black with coal.